Biden to Restore Protections for Tongass National Forest in Alaska

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is expected to announce on Thursday that it will move forward with a plan to fully restore environmental protections to Tongass National Forest in Alaska, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forests. The protections had been stripped away by former President Donald J. Trump.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency includes the United States Forest Service, is expected to announce the news, according to two people briefed on the matter who asked to speak anonymously because it had not yet been made public.

Spokespeople for the White House, the Agriculture Department and the Forest Service did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday night.

Alaskan lawmakers hoped that the Biden administration might restore protections to some parts of the fragile forest but leave a portion open to logging.

Instead, the new plan will not only reinstitute the old protections but add new safeguards, including an end to large scale logging of old growth timber across the forest’s entire 16 million acres, according to the people briefed on the matter. It is also expected to include $25 million in federal spending on local sustainable development in Alaska, for projects to improve the health of the forest.

That money appears designed in part to appease Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is now playing a key role in negotiating a bipartisan $579 billion infrastructure bill that President Biden sees as crucial to advancing his economic agenda. She has personally asked senior administration officials to leave open portions of the Tongass for economic development that she sees as crucial to her home state.

At the same time, Mr. Biden is seeking to enact the most ambitious climate agenda envisioned by an American president. As record drought, wildfires and heat waves hobble Western states, Mr. Biden is aiming to revive and strengthen protections rolled back by Mr. Trump and cut the pollution that is driving climate change.

This fall, Mr. Biden plans to attend a United Nations conference of world leaders in Scotland to argue that after four years in which the American president mocked climate science, the United States is a leader in the fight against global warming.

Environmentalists said the move to fully restore protections to the Tongass could be one step in making that case.

“This is the Biden administration putting itself squarely on the road to re-claiming climate leadership, as it heads to the Glasgow summit this fall,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

The forest plays an important role in protecting the climate. Scientists point out that the Tongass offers an important service to the billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to ever set foot there: It is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of about 8 percent of the carbon stored in all the forests of the lower 48 states combined.

The vast wilderness, in southeastern Alaska, is home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish and shellfish, including nesting bald eagles, moose and the world’s greatest concentration of black bears. Tucked between its snowy peaks, fjords and rushing rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and Western hemlock as well as Sitka spruce trees that are at least 800 years old.

Republicans and Democrats have fought over the Tongass for 20 years. The forest was heavily logged in the 1960s and the 1970s, but in 2001 President Bill Clinton enacted the “roadless rule” that blocked road construction necessary for logging and mining in much of the forest.

A few months before leaving office, Mr. Trump exempted the entire forest from the “roadless rule,” handing a victory to Alaska’s Republican leaders who argued that the southeastern part of their state needed the economic boost that logging and other development would bring.The move was assailed by environmentalists and the majority of commenters who formally registered opinions with the government.

Ms. Murkowski has criticized the idea of restoring full protections for Tongass.

“Obviously, my strong, strong preference has been, for an exemption, that this roadless rule should not be for the whole nine million acres,” Ms. Murkowski said in an interview last month.

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

“This is hard on the communities, it’s hard to plan,” she said. “There’s a local bank that’s based down there that’s catch as catch can, you know. How do you know where you’re going to go for investment when you have such uncertainty that’s been going on for so long? We’ve got to try to put a stop to this.”

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