Biden ends large-scale logging on huge Alaska rainforest

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Thursday it is ending large-scale, old-growth timber sales on the nation’s largest national forest — the Tongass National Forest in Alaska — and will instead focus on forest restoration, recreation and other non-commercial uses.

The announcement by the U.S. Forest Service reverses a Trump administration decision to lift restrictions on logging and road-building in the southeast Alaska rainforest, which provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon.

Smaller timber sales, including some old-growth trees, will still be offered for local communities and cultural uses such as totem poles, canoes and tribal artisan use, the Forest Service said.

The Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, also said it will take steps to restore the so-called Roadless Rule for the Tongass. The 2001 rule prohibits road construction and timber harvests with limited exceptions on nearly one-third of national forest land. The Trump administration moved last year to exempt the Tongass, winning plaudits from Alaska’s Republican governor and its all-Republican congressional delegation.

By restoring roadless-rule protections, officials are “returning stability and certainty to the conservation of 9.3 million acres of the world’s largest temperate old growth rainforest,” the Agriculture Department said.

Conservationists cheered the announcement, which the administration had signaled last month.

“Old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change, so restoring roadless protections to the Tongass is critical,” said Andy Moderow of the Alaska Wilderness League.

“With Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, we shouldn’t be discussing the continued clearcutting” of a national forest long considered the crown jewel of the U.S. forest system, Moderow said.

“Alaskans love their old-growth forests and the timber industry in Southeast (Alaska) is now a relic of the past,” he said. “The Tongass is an unmatched treasure and with smart action now we can properly manage it for future generations.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized the administration’s announcement last month that it planned to “repeal or replace” the Trump administration’s decision last year to lift restrictions on logging and road building in the Tongass. Dunleavy, a Republican, vowed to use “every tool available to push back.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the Biden administration was “literally throwing away” years of work by the Forest Service and Agriculture Department under former President Donald Trump.

“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,” Murkowski said last month. “This has to end.”

The action on the Tongass follows a decision by the Biden administration last month to suspend oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A 2017 tax-cut law passed by congressional Republicans called for two lease sales to be held in the refuge. A January lease sale in the refuge drew a tepid response.

In an action that angered environmentalists, the Biden administration has defended a Trump-era decision 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.