To some, it is a resource that drove development for decades, before environmental protections and economic difficulties conspired to close it off. To many others, it is an ecological treasure that may not be the country's best-known wild expanse -- but probably should be. The fate of the world's largest intact temperate rainforest, the Tongass National Forest, which hugs Alaska's southeastern coast, is once again in the balance. This time, those who want more development are winning.
At issue is President Bill Clinton's 2001 "roadless rule," which banned road building and other development in nearly 60 million acres of federally administered national forests. President George W. Bush tried unsuccessfully to kill the policy. Alaska's congressional delegation has also sought a specific exemption for the Tongass. The Trump administration now appears ready to give them one, proposing a full exemption from its restrictions for 9.5 million acres of the 16.7-million-acre national forest.
The state's leaders complain that federal roadless restrictions have choked off economic growth in the area, requiring burdensome reviews to get exceptions from the roadless rule to build hydroelectric dams, to mine or, yes, to fell trees. Federal land policy looms large in southeastern Alaska, where the federal government owns some 94 percent, leaving some locals incensed that distant authorities restrict them from exploiting the resources in their backyard.
Conservationists respond that federal oversight is not so burdensome: Forest Service officials have substantially cut the time it takes to get permits for projects in the Tongass. Meanwhile, the forest's ecological value is arguably unmatched in the United States. The old-growth forest environmentalists now fear is at risk contains massive trees sometimes centuries in vintage that are the backbone of a complex ecosystem. Such trees cannot be replaced quickly even with careful management. The Tongass is something like the United States' Amazon: Experts reckon that it eats up an astonishing 8 percent of the country's annual carbon dioxide emissions.
When considering the future of irreplaceable resources, it is best to be cautious. Logging even seemingly isolated stretches of forest, and building roads to them, can have tremendous effects for the whole ecosystem -- and those who make their living in non-extractive industries. Erosion can lead to cloudy rivers and streams in which salmon are supposed to spawn. Clear-cut forests are unsightly and unappealing to tourists. The Tongass contains the spawning ground for some 40 percent of the wild salmon along the West Coast. Tourism accounts for 17 percent of the region's jobs. It is little surprise that tourism groups and fishermen, not to mention native tribes that practice subsistence hunting on these lands, oppose easing federal protections.
The Obama administration had the right idea: It drafted a plan that would move what logging persisted in the Tongass from old-growth to new-growth stands, a far more ecologically sound enterprise. Rather than tearing up that plan, the Trump administration should try to make it work.
This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.