President Biden has taken steps to upturn a Trump-era decision to do away with the protection of vast areas of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The administration will soon engage in a process to do away with Trump’s policies in the region that favored logging and road-building in ecologically sensitive areas in the region.
The move will have an impact on the road building and fresh logging proposals in the temperature rainforests covering nine million acres in the southeast of Alaska. These vast swaths of Tongass National Forest have trees that have stood for centuries and had been long protected from road building and logging by Roadless Rule. This protection was trumped by the former President by a decision at the end of 2020 to exempt Tongass from this protection.
A lawsuit was immediately filed by Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice on behalf of various affected groups, challenging the rollback of the Roadless Rule.
The people sought to be protected from the destruction of the Tongass National Forest, and on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed, including the Native tribes of Alaska, conservation organizations, small businesses of Southeast Alaska, and commercial fishermen.
A statement by Kate Glover, attorney of Earthjustice, and the lead attorney on the litigation said that they were encouraged that the Forest Service under the Biden administration will relook into the politically motivated and ill-conceived attempt to auction off the Tongass National Park.
She said that the petitioners would urge the Forest Service to reinstate the upturned Roadless Rule.
Tongass National Forest As Vital As The Amazon Rainforest
The Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rainforest that has remained intact and is the biggest national forest in the US. It covers 26,000 sq. m. (67,340 sq. km.), which is approximately as vast as West Virginia. The forest covers a maximum of the southeast region of Alaska. There are more than 1,000 forested islands in Tongass and an equal number of fjords and watersheds.
Even as large parts of the US, including Alaska, and Canada experienced unprecedented heat waves in recent years, the Tongass old-growth forest has served as a barrier against climate changes.
It has been a haven for birds, wildlife, and marine life, including the endangered salmon. Similar to the Amazon rainforests, the Tongass absorb a vast amount of greenhouse gases and are the storehouse of 40% of all carbon in US national forests.
For the past 2 decades, The Tongass National Forest has been the focus of political conflicts. The two main issues are the designation of the forest as road-less areas, and logging. The protection of the Tongass is vital not just for the biodiversity of the region, but also to arrest climate change.
The forest of Tongass formed towards the end of the period known as the Little Ice Age sometime in the mid-1700s. the ice age left large areas of southern Alaska barren. But it gradually became forested with trees and plants and turned into a forest of rich and diverse old-growth forest.
In 1902, Tongass was designated as a forest reserve. 5 years later it was turned into a national forest. The forests are the traditional home of the Haida, Tsimshian, and the Tlingit people. the forest is named after the Tongass people, part of the Tlingit. They have lived in the forest for the past 10,000 years.
The indigenous people of Alaska bank on the diversity of the Tongass forests for survival and their traditions. The forests are the last refuge of brown bears and various species of wolves that are become scarce in other regions of the US.
The watersheds in Tongass, numbering around 900, are in pristine condition. They are capable of providing habitat and shelter for various wild species, that are capable of relief from the effect of climate change in other forests on the continent.
Salmon are abundant in the rivers and creeks of the forest, while also provide food for eagles, bears, and various other animals. such a unique and complete ecosystem is rarely found in other forests of the world. The Tongass is also the northernmost rainforest on the planet.
The threat of roads intruding into the Tongass National Forest
The pristine old-growth forest, with trees 100s of years old, helps in carbon storage, climate resilience, and biodiversity. The forests have totally developed root structures that permeate deep into the soil. Such old-growth forests are extra resistant to drought, storms, fire, and insects, more than new forests. Such forests are better able to withstand climate changes.
These forests need to be protected as they store a massive quantity of carbon inside these old trees and soil. Scientists guess that a mere 6-14% of forests in the US are intact. And of the remaining forests area, only 7% is old-growth forests that are over a century old.
Building roads across forests effectively starts the process of forest loss. These roads give access to humans deep into the heart of the forests and severely disturb their environment. A 30 feet road effectively destroys forests across another 80-100 feet as adjacent forests are also destroyed during construction activity. The intrusion of roads also leads to trapping and poaching activities.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule was adopted by the Clinton Administration back in 2001. It put a halt to timber sales, logging, road construction, and mining activities in national forests in the US. Half the area of the Tongass, around 9.2M acres, were designated as inventoried road-less zones.
The Trump administration sought to upturn the protection and open the forests to logging, road construction, and mining. But the protection of the Tongass has been restored for now by President Biden.
There will also be a halt to the sales of old-growth timber on a large scale. The focus will be on recreation, restoration, and non-commercial activity. Logging will only be permitted for traditional uses. An investment of $25M is also on the cards for economic opportunities focusing on the needs of the indigenous people.
The protection of the Tongass could ensure both fortification against climate change and protection of the ecological richness of the forests. It could be the first of the strategic reserves against climate change. Such areas across the US could prove as massive carbon sinks and ensure the survival of diverse plants and animals. And for that, it needs long-term support from the top.