Forest Service Backs an End to Limits on Roads in Alaska’s Tongass Forest

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday took a step toward opening up the pristine woodlands of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction, saying it would prefer an end to all road-building restrictions throughout the forest.

The move, which was widely expected, comes after years of prodding by successive Alaska governors and congressional delegations, which have pushed the federal government to exempt the Tongass, the nation’s largest national forest, from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system. A final rule is not expected until next June.

On Tuesday, the United States Forest Service, which comes under the Department of Agriculture, took a step forward and put its weight behind a final decision that would be welcomed by most politicians in the state but dreaded by environmentalists.

The Forest Service announced that it had prepared a draft environmental study analyzing the impacts of altering or lifting the Roadless Rule in the Tongass forest, which includes 165,000 acres of old-growth hemlock, cedar and spruce trees. The study, which will be published this week, analyzed six possible changes to the rule. One option would maintain restrictions in 80 percent of the area currently protected by the rule, another would open up about 2.3 million acres to logging and construction, and another would lift all roadless rule restrictions from the forest.

The Forest Service, backed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, called the lifting of the entire roadless rule in Tongass the administration’s “preferred option.”

Supporters in Alaska said such a move would be an economic boon to their state, while conservationists lamented the possible destruction of vast areas of pristine old-growth forest.

“I’m very pleased the administration has listened to Alaskans and is proposing a full exemption from the roadless rule as its preferred alternative,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I thank President Trump, Secretary Perdue, and the team at the Forest Service for their hard work to reach this point — and for their continued efforts to restore reasonable access to the Tongass National Forest.”

Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Alaska’s elected officials are selling out their constituents and robbing future generations by trying to strip protection from one of the most pristine old-growth forests in the world.”

She predicted the plan “would smother vital wild salmon streams with sediment and irreparably harm subsistence hunters.”

Once the study is published, members of the public will have until Dec. 17 to submit comments, which are meant to inform the Agriculture Department as Mr. Perdue moves toward a final decision, which is expected in June 2020.

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