Feds will ‘repeal or replace’ Trump-era decision to lift logging, road building restrictions in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Story Highlights

  • The Tongass National Forest is the country's largest national forest.
  • U.S. Rep Don Young called the feds' decision "yet another nail in the coffin for economic opportunity" in southeast Alaska.
  • More than 9 million of the Tongass' roughly 16.7 million acres are considered roadless areas, according to a federal environmental review last year.

JUNEAU, Alaska — The federal government announced plans Friday to “repeal or replace” a decision by the Trump administration last fall to lift restrictions on logging and road building in a southeast Alaska rainforest that provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon. 

Conservationists cheered the announcement as a positive step. Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized it and vowed to use “every tool available to push back.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plans were announced on a federal regulatory site with little detail. They were described as consistent with a January executive order from President Joe Biden that called for reviewing agency actions during the Trump administration that could be at odds with Biden’s environmental priorities. The U.S. Forest Service falls under the Agriculture Department. 

The Tongass National Forest is the country’s largest national forest. In a statement, Matt Herrick, an Agriculture Department spokesperson, said the Trump administration decision “did not align with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans.”

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“Future decisions about the role of the Tongass National Forest should continue to reflect the best interests of Alaskans and the country as a whole,” Herrick said. 

The statement did not outline the next steps the Agriculture Department would take to repeal or replace the Trump administration decision.

The Agriculture Department last October decided to exempt the Tongass from the so-called roadless rule, which prohibited road construction and timber harvests with limited exceptions. The roadless rule, dating to 2001, has long been the subject of litigation. 

A sign leads the way to John Muir Cabin on the Auk Nu Trail in the Tongass National Forest near Juneau, Alaska. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 2018, Alaska under then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, asked the federal government to consider an exemption. Dunleavy supported the request, as have members of Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator, said the Trump administration, through the Forest Service and Agriculture Department, “put considerable work and effort into the final rule and now the Biden administration is literally throwing it all away.” 

“We need to end this ‘yo-yo effect’ as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass are upended every time we have a new President. This has to end,” she said in a statement.

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U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan called the decision “misguided,” and U.S. Rep Don Young said it was “yet another nail in the coffin for economic opportunity” in southeast Alaska. The region, heavily reliant on tourism, was hard-hit by the pandemic last year.

The Biden administration earlier this month suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, following a January lease sale that drew a tepid response. A law passed by Congress in 2017 called for two lease sales to be held.

Tourists at the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest are reflected in a pool of water as they make their way to Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska, in this July 31, 2013, file photo. (Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)

But U.S. government attorneys also have defended a decision made during the Trump administration to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope that Alaska political leaders have supported.

More than 9 million of the Tongass’ roughly 16.7 million acres are considered roadless areas, according to a federal environmental review last year. The majority of the Tongass is in a natural condition, and the forest is one of the largest relatively intact temperate rainforests in the world, the review said.

Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said those who supported keeping the roadless rule provisions in place for the Tongass “heartily encourage the administration to put this thing to bed by repealing the Trump rule once and for all.”

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