Trump Strips Protections from Tongass National Forest
“America’s Amazon” is being sold to China, at a huge cost to the environment, and a net loss to taxpayers
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration published a rule that will strip protections from 9.4 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The move is being made despite overwhelming opposition from the general public and Native Americans who rely on the forest for food and clean water. It’s expected to decimate salmon populations and eliminate the largest carbon sink in the country, worsening the impacts of climate change. If that’s not bad enough, logging the Tongass requires massive financial support from taxpayers, resulting in a net loss to the government’s bottom line.
Published without comment or fanfare, in a possible attempt to influence Alaska’s Senate election, the rule works against the express desire of citizens to create a corporate welfare program that targets marginalized communities while destroying the environment. It’s all the worst parts of this Presidency wrapped up in a final fuck you to the country right before election day.
Encompassing 16.7 million acres of southeast Alaska, the Tongass is our nation’s largest national forest. But fewer than ten million acres of it are actually forested, with the rest being composed of glaciers, wetlands, and other ecosystems. Still, those forests are so large that they absorb eight percent of our country’s annual carbon emissions—equivalent to the total yearly emissions of ten million cars—and are composed of virgin, old-growth trees that grow up to ten feet in diameter, 200 feet tall, and 800 years old. No other part of our continent contains as much plant life per square mile. And the Tongass is full of animals, too, including five species of salmon, the densest populations of brown bears and bald eagles on the planet, the rare Alexander Archipelago Wolf (or Sea Wolf), orcas, humpback whales, otters, and much more. It’s common to hear the Tongass referred to as “America’s Amazon,” but since it’s a temperate, rather than a tropical, rainforest, it’s actually even rarer. About 2.4 million square miles of tropical rainforest remain across the planet, but only 117,000 miles of temperate rainforest exist. Destroying the Tongass’s 14,000 square miles of rainforest would eliminate 12 percent of all the temperate rainforest area remaining in the world.
The Tongass has been protected since 2001 by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a Clinton administration edict that prohibited new road building across sensitive areas of national forests. Because extractive activities, like industrial logging, require roads to operate, the Roadless rule effectively limited the operations of such industries in forests, where it applies, to their 2001 levels. But, as of Thursday, all 9.4 million acres of forest in the Tongass are open to logging.
The move is not popular. During the public comment period, over 2.5 million Americans voiced their opinion, with 96 percent of respondents opposed to the rule change and only one percent in favor. All five of Alaska’s tribal nations are united in opposition to the plan, writing, “We refuse to allow legitimacy upon a process that has disregarded our input at every turn,” in a letter to agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue.
National forests are part of the Department of Agriculture, and not the Department of the Interior, which runs Bureau of Land Management lands, national parks, and more, and has been embroiled in its own corruption scandals.
Logging the Tongass will not benefit taxpayers. A federal mandate dictates that timber sales in national forests result in profits for the private businesses involved, so the forest service often ends up covering their costs, including road building. A study conducted by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan advocacy group that “believes in fiscal policy based on facts,” found that existing logging operations in the Tongass have cost taxpayers $44 million a year since 1980. That rate of loss is predicted to continue as more areas of the forest open to extraction. The Guardian reports that each mile of road constructed in the Tongass could cost taxpayers up to $500,000.
Nor is logging the Tongass necessary. As of 2012, the most recent year for which this data is available, unused logging inventory in areas with existing permits totaled over 972 billion cubic feet of lumber nationwide. The total amount of lumber the Tongass holds is 18 billion cubic feet.
It’s also unlikely expanded logging in the forest will substantially benefit the local economy. According to Alaska’s Southeast Conference—a business council—logging accounts for only one percent of southeast Alaska’s total jobs, or 372 total workers. In contrast, the seafood industry employs 3,743 locals, or eight percent of the total. Tourism employs 7,344 people there, accounting for 18 percent of the economy. It makes no sense to endanger industries made possible by a healthy, intact ecosystem with one that only stands to profit from destroying it.
Twenty-eight percent of Alaska’s $986 million annual commercial salmon harvest comes from the Tongass’s 77 watersheds. It’s expected that erosion and other runoff will enter those streams and rivers, smothering salmon eggs and reducing population numbers. That directly threatens $276 million in commercial activity for the state.
So without a benefit to taxpayers in Alaska or elsewhere in this country, and at a significant threat to the local economy, who benefits from this particular regulatory rollback by the Trump administration? China, which uses lumber made affordable by American taxpayer subsidies to fuel its booming construction industry and to produce furniture and other consumer goods it exports to America, and other markets.
A 2016 report created by the USDA stated that the percentage of lumber produced in the Tongass and exported to China was “over 90 percent in both 2005 and 2011.”
A 2015 study conducted by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that “nearly all 2015 Alaskan log exports were sent to Pacific Rim countries in Northeast Asia, with China receiving approximately 76 percent of the volume leaving the Anchorage Customs District.”
Citizens for the Republic, a conservative lobbying organization started by Ronald Reagan in 1977 for the purpose of, “protecting the American taxpayer by undertaking grassroots initiatives to stop the advance of liberal government,” pulls no punches about what’s going on here. It reads, “If the Roadless Rule is lifted, the expanded logging in the Tongass will generate millions for China’s economy—but little for America’s economy.”
Meanwhile, money that could be generated by keeping the Tongass intact, in benefit of the American economy, is being left on the table. Already, Sealaska, a Native-owned for-profit corporation that historically engaged in logging, has turned its 300,000 acres of the Tongass into $100 million of profits, over five years, in the form of carbon credits. In that time, the price of carbon has increased 25 percent.
The Western Values Project, a conservation advocacy organization, reports that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski accepted campaign donations from Viking Lumber, one of the chief benefactors of expanded logging in the Tongass. It also found that a prominent USDA lawyer formerly represented Viking in their efforts to expand logging in the forest, and goes on to paint a picture of further financial links between pro-logging interests and political offices in the state.
Meanwhile, the Alaskan economy has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and politicians running for re-election in the state are under pressure to deliver at least the appearance of creating jobs. Dan Sullivan, the state’s junior Senator, is locked in a tight re-election campaign, and The Washington Post reports that President Trump’s attempts to keep him in power could be the reason why the rule opening the Tongass was advanced at this moment.
According to the Post, the President allegedly asked Senator Sullivan: “How the [expletive] do you have an economy without roads?”
One ray of hope here is that a hypothetical future Biden administration would likely reverse the revocation of the Roadless Rule, halting new road construction as soon as three months after it was permitted. As of the time of writing, over 50 million Americans have already cast their vote. If nothing else, this should be a reminder that your vote really does matter.