Roads into Alaska's Tongass can affect climate

By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter (F

tongass rainforest dds

The Trump administration is one step closer to carving roads through one of the country's biggest carbon sinks.

Earlier this week, comments closed on an industry-supported proposal that could reshape the Tongass National Forest, the country's biggest stretch of woods. The federal plan is advancing as scientists say that forests will help determine what level of damage the world experiences from warming — bad to catastrophic.

Photo by Dominick DellaSala

The Forest Service proposal aims to build roads through the Tongass. But it's more than a traffic question. Both sides see it as a precursor to logging more old-growth trees. And more broadly, conservationists say it illustrates the gap between what forests need to thrive and what this administration is giving them.

 "They refuse to acknowledge what scientists are prescribing as a remedy for forests in the face of climate change," said Peter Nelson, director of the Federal Lands Program at Defenders of Wildlife.

Top Republicans have embraced so-called active management — like tree thinning and prescribed burns — to counter record-breaking wildfires, mass tree deaths and other woodland ills. Most experts agree that those measures can help under the right circumstances. But some suspect that Trump officials are using active management as a cover to expand logging into lucrative — and sensitive — areas.

To those critics, the Tongass road proposal showcases the emphasis on extraction.

"This is your first line of climate change defense in Alaska, it's these intact forests. This is your chance for southeast Alaska to have a safe climate. If you continue to log these forests, you're just contributing to the problem," said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute.

The administration leans on fire and climate science to argue for thinning dry forests in the interior West — and rightly so in some cases, said Mike Anderson, a policy analyst with the Wilderness Society.

But taking the same approach in the Tongass rainforest shows its real goal is logging, he said. Unlike parts of the Lower 48, the Alaska forest isn't prone to burning, so roads into the woods are less important for tree thinning.

"It's just crazy," Anderson said. "Old-growth logging in the Tongass is the last thing the Forest Service should be spending energy on."

It also hurts other woodlands, he added, because the Forest Service would be spending time and money on the Tongass roads instead of on other needs, like more science-based thinning and prescribed burns in dry forests.

President Trump seemed to acknowledge this week how much work remains in Western forests. In an interview with the Associated Press, he referred to the more than 100 million dead trees standing in California.

"California does a horrible job maintaining their forests. They're going to have to start doing a better job, or we're not going to be paying them," Trump said. He didn't elaborate on what payments he was talking about.

Former officials under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have warned that the Trump administration is courting disaster by disregarding the role climate change plays in forest fire planning (Climatewire, Aug. 17). The Forest Service has escaped some of that criticism, but the Tongass fight could change that.

"It's a study in hypocrisy," Nelson of Defenders of Wildlife said.

"The rationale for everything they're doing in forest management is essentially wildfire," he said, adding that the administration's policy is the same whether there's fire risk or not: log more.

Wildfire isn't a problem in the Tongass — as it's a temperate rainforest, one expert said, it would be nearly impossible to burn the wet vegetation if you tried. But it does matter to the climate for two big reasons, and conservationists say the road proposal undercuts both.

First, big forests could cushion the effects of global warming by offering shelter to wildlife from climate stresses. But roads fragment habitat, deflating that cushion and potentially offering an entryway for other disruptions, like invasive species.

"Building roads into an intact forest jump starts a death-by-thousand cuts," more than 200 scientists said in a letter opposing the Tongass road proposal.

Second, the Tongass stores a huge amount of carbon. It's home to about 8 percent of all the carbon sequestered in American woodlands. The Obama administration sought to transition old-growth logging there to new-growth. That inflamed industry, which called it disastrous to the sector, and irked environmentalists because of how much old growth would still get cut down.

Now, the road proposal foreshadows a bigger change in the Tongass' land planning. More logging could be part of it, but so could other activities, like mining (Greenwire, Oct. 4).

"We don't need 90 percent of the Tongass National Forest to be 'protected' from the Alaskans who live in Southeast Alaska," said a letter signed by the leaders of the Alaska Miners Association, the Alaska Forest Association and other industry groups.

"We believe that tourism, fishing, mining, energy development, and a renewed timber industry can coexist to the benefit of all in the region," the letter said.

A proposed environmental impact statement for the road plan is expected in summer 2019, with the final rule following in 2020.

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