U.S. Forest Service officials are declining to say why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to fully exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule instead of choosing other options that would allow logging in the forest but maintain some roadless area protections.
“I don’t know if I can speak to the need of that,” Chad Vanormer, U.S. Forest Service director of ecosystem planning and budget and a member of the agency’s Alaska Roadless Rulemaking Team, told Bloomberg Environment Nov. 21.
Vanormer was speaking at the Alaska Resources Conference in Anchorage organized by the Resource Development Council, which represents Alaska’s fossil fuel, mining, timber, and tourism industries.
The Trump administration, responding to a petition from the state of Alaska, has proposed to open 9.2 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to potential logging by exempting the entire 16.7 million-acre forest from the Roadless Rule.
The proposal says lifting roadless protections for the Tongass would be to support the economic wellbeing of southeast Alaska, Vanormer said.
‘Hard to Characterize’ Need
But the agency, as part of a mandated environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, is considering a total of six options for how to apply the Roadless Rule in the Tongass. Officials are telling the public that the Forest Service could ultimately choose any of the six options.
Those include options to maintain full roadless protections, relax the protections to various degrees, or fully drop roadless protections.
But the agency’s stated preferred option is to drop all roadless protections—the most extreme option and the one requested by the administration.
“It would be hard to characterize the need” to fully exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, U.S. Forest Service Alaska Regional Forester David Schmid told Bloomberg Environment in a Nov. 19 interview in the Tongass near Juneau, Alaska.
Schmid said the exemption would make 185,000 acres of woodlands currently off-limits to loggers available for timber harvesting, including 165,000 acres of old-growth forest.
President Donald Trump in August instructed the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, to exempt the entire Tongass from the Roadless Rule after meeting with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), the Washington Post reported.
At a Nov. 13 House Natural Resources subcommittee meeting, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) accused the administration of acting illegally and of going through the required environmental review process to achieve a predetermined outcome.
In Perdue’s ‘Ballpark’
Forest Service officials overseeing the Tongass insist the outcome is not predetermined, and say it was Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue who chose a full roadless rule exemption as the agency’s preferred alternative.
“It’s kind of in his ballpark,” Vanormer said.
The Tongass is the country’s largest national forest and the continent’s most expansive remaining intact temperate rain forest, which stores more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other forest in the U.S.
The forest, as protected under the Roadless Rule, provides a plethora of “long-term life support benefits to society as a whole,” including carbon sequestration, clean air, clean water, and a host of other services, the U.S. Forest Service said in the draft environmental impact statement released in October that proposes to end those protections.
The administration is proposing to manage the Tongass under a forest plan separate from the Roadless Rule.
Environmental groups worry the plan can be easily amended and open the door to widespread logging, and Native Alaskan tribal leaders of many of the small communities scattered throughout the Tongass have written to the Forest Service calling the lifting of the roadless rule an “assault.”
Tariffs, Fires Challenge Industry
The timber industry is applauding the Trump administration for taking steps toward opening up new opportunities for logging the Tongass, but Alaska’s loggers face mounting challenges from both climate change and Trump’s trade policy.
“The state has been focused on forest fires and hasn’t been able to focus as much on [timber] sales,” said Jaeleen Kookesh, vice president and general counsel of Tongass timber harvester Sealaska Corp., speaking at the conference.
The Alaska Division of Forestry conducts timber sales on state-owned lands and fights wildfires. The division did not respond to requests for comment Nov. 21.
Scientists say that climate change helped to fuel the 722 wildfires that scorched more than 2.5 million acres across Alaska in 2019—the third-worst wildfire season in Alaska in a decade.
The U.S. trade war with China has also put a cloud over Alaska’s timber industry, Kookesh said.
“For some of our spruce logs and other logs, we’ve had to pay as much as a 20 percent tariff selling logs to China, which has always been one of our biggest markets,” she said.
The tariffs have forced Sealaska to curtail or shut down half of its timber harvesting projects, Kookesh said.
But the Trump administration potentially ending roadless area protections the Tongass will open new logging “opportunities” for the embattled timber industry, despite the economic clouds and expected legal challenges from environmental groups that could block or slow the opening of new areas of the Tongass to logging, she said.
Kookesh said environmental groups are spreading “false facts” about what ending roadless protections for the Tongass would do.
“The removal of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule is not about opening up 9 million acres to clearcut,” Kookesh said. “The impact is pretty minimal.”
Additional logging in the Tongass would release a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change, Steve Hamburg, a forest ecologist who studied carbon sequestration in the Tongass when he was a professor at Brown University, told Bloomberg Environment.
He said logging the Tongass is “as classic a short-sighted move to try to extract natural resources out of a place like that as ever there there was.”
Hamburg is currently the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.