Donald Trump’s administration has turned its all-consuming maw to Alaska’s 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest, per a Tuesday report in the Washington Post citing three sources briefed on a plan to exempt the forest from logging restrictions imposed in 2001.
As the Post noted, Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, and the exemptions could open up this relatively unscathed ecosystem to renewed logging, energy, and mining projects. Particularly headache inducing is that Trump has reportedly taken a “personal interest” in the topic of forest management, with one aide telling the Post that forest policy has become “an obsession of his.”
Virtually every time the president has opined on the subject, from claiming that Finland prevents wildfires by “raking” forests to wild claims that California is letting water flow into the Pacific instead of using it to put out blazes, he has displayed a typically profound ignorance. It’s beyond clear that Trump does not understand the subject of “forest management” at all and essentially believes it to be a synonym for logging.
The Tongass is a huge stretch of southeastern Alaska filled with old-growth trees that constitutes the Forest Service’s single largest holding. According to the Post, the decision in question involves proposed revisions to rules implemented in 2001 under the Clinton administration, which prohibited logging in more than half of the Tongass as part of a broader “roadless rule” barring “the construction of roads in 58.5 million acres of undeveloped national forest across the country.”
The policy was challenged under the Bush administration but has survived to this day; Trump reportedly wants to exempt the Tongass from it. Though the White House was already considering “much more modest” revisions to the rule, the Post wrote, Trump’s decision to inject himself into it could affect nearly 10 million acres of the 16.7 million acre forest:
In 2016, the agency finalized a plan to phase out old-growth logging in the Tongass within a decade. Congress has designated more than 5.7 million acres of the forest as wilderness, which must remain undeveloped under any circumstances. If Trump’s plan succeeds, it could affect 9.5 million acres.
... Trump expressed support for exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule during [a conversation with Governor Mike Dunleavy], according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Earlier this month, Trump told [Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue] to issue a plan to that effect this fall, these individuals said.
The move is supported by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy and Senator Lisa Murkowski, both of whom have claimed the roadless rule inhibits development of the region and a sustainable regional economy. Murkowski told the Post in a statement that the “timber industry has declined precipitously, and it is astonishing that the few remaining mills in our nation’s largest national forest have to constantly worry about running out of supply.”
According to the Post, it’s unclear how much logging would actually occur if Alaska was exempted from the rule, because the Forest Service issued a plan in 2016 that identified 962,000 acres as suitable for logging and recommended that no more than 568,000 acres should actually be logged. That plan would need to be revised before anything changes.
Retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife ecologist John Schoen warned in a 2013 paper that about half of the old growth in the Tongass had already been logged, and that further loss could have serious impacts on fauna including “brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, a bird of prey called the Northern Goshawk and other species,” the Post wrote. Additional concerns include that logging could disrupt the $986 million salmon industry, as 40 percent of wild salmon spawn in the Tongass and are reliant on its ecosystem.