November 30, 2023

WASHINGTON – The Biden government is expected to announce Thursday that it will advance a plan to fully restore the conservation of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the world. The protection had been lifted by former President Donald J. Trump.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency includes the United States Forest Service, is expected to release the news, according to a person who was briefed on the matter and wanted to speak anonymously as it has not yet been made public.

White House, Agriculture Department and Forest Service spokesmen did not respond to inquiries via email on Wednesday evening.

The move comes a month after the government announced plans to “repeal or replace” a rule promulgated under Mr Trump to open approximately nine million acres or more than half of the forest for logging and road construction.

Tongass, in southeast Alaska, is a vast wilderness home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish, and shellfish, including nesting bald eagles, moose, and the world’s largest concentration of black bears. Between its snow-capped peaks, fjords and rushing rivers lie stocks of red and yellow cedar and hemlock, as well as Sitka spruces that are at least 800 years old.

Alaska lawmakers had hoped that the Biden government would allow development in parts of the forest. Among them is Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is now playing a key role in negotiating a bipartisan $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden sees as critical to advancing his economic agenda. She has urged Mr. Biden to keep parts of the Tongass open to logging, drilling and other economic developments that she believes are critical to her home state.

Republicans and Democrats have been fighting over the Tongass for 20 years. The forest was severely cut down in the 1960s and 1970s, but in 2001 President Bill Clinton enacted the “Roadless Rule,” which blocked the road construction required for logging and mining much of the forest.

The forest plays a key role in the fight against climate change. One of the largest carbon sinks in the world, its trees and soils absorb and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, trapping heat and contributing to global warming.

A few months before leaving office, Mr. Trump exempted the entire forest from “roadless rule” and presented a victory to the Republican leaders of Alaska, who argued that the southeastern part of their state needed economic recovery, logging and other developments The move was attacked by environmentalists and the majority of commentators, who formally submitted their opinions to the government.

Mr Biden made it clear from the start of his presidency that he would withdraw many of his predecessor’s environmental actions.

“Obviously, my strong, strong preference for an exception was that this roadless rule shouldn’t apply to the entire nine million acres,” Ms. Murkowski said in an interview last month.

The yo-yo aspect of Tongass politics makes it difficult for Alaskans, she said.

“It’s hard for the churches, it’s hard to plan,” she said. “There’s a local bank down there that can catch as fast as possible, you know. How do you know where to invest when you have such uncertainty that has lasted for so long? We have to try to put an end to this. “

While Tongass is closed to development, the Biden government is expected to announce $ 25 million in federal spending on local sustainable development in Alaska, which the person briefed says will support forest health improvement projects.