As described in December, Defenders is actively opposing the Trump administration’s attempt to eliminate the national Roadless Area Conservation Rule on the Tongass. About 15,000 of our members and supporters submitted public comments opposing this change, part of a national outcry of almost 600,000 Americans almost universally calling for protection of our nation’s largest and most incredible forest. Thank you for your participation in that process! We are awaiting a final decision from the administration and are well-positioned to challenge it, should the administration ignore the public input, as it has on so many other issues of environmental importance, and decide to move forward with threatening the wildlife of our public lands.
I want to provide an update on another significant threat to wildlife in the Tongass: The Trump administration’s attempted return to old-growth clearcutting on other (non-roadless) forest lands. Large-scale old-growth clearcutting is devastating for fish and wildlife that depend on that habitat to survive, including bears, salmon, wolves, and deer, a critical subsistence resource. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) finalized an amendment to the Tongass Forest Plan that initiated a transition away from such a destructive and unsustainable practice. The amendment reflected broad consensus from scientists, including two former Forest Service Chiefs, and the support of a large majority of Americans who don’t want to see our remaining priceless ancient forests pillaged at a loss of taxpayer dollars to boot.
In 2018, President Trump’s Forest Service ignored the previous decision and opted instead to try to revive clearcutting on the Tongass, proposing the largest timber sale seen anywhere in the country in decades. Again, thousands of Defenders’ members rose in opposition to this action and in defense of wildlife and habitat on the Tongass, calling out the wildlife impacts that would follow. The Forest Service nonetheless tried to forge ahead, approving the massive project and 15 years of clearcutting in March 2019, despite significant concerns about the legality of its actions.
With your support, Defenders was able to take the USFS to court and in September the federal district court in Alaska halted the first planned clearcut, citing the Forest Service’s inadequate assessment of the wildlife and habitat impacts at stake. That preliminary decision saved thousands of acres of old-growth habitat for wildlife on Prince of Wales Island. And on March 11, the court permanently rejected the entire plan. This is a victory for wildlife, for our precious public forest lands, and for the rule of law. This decision protects thousands of acres of high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and the sustainable industries that rely on it. It also upholds the public’s right to basic information about proposed uses of our national forests, and the impacts of those uses on our shared public resources.
Meanwhile, however, the Forest Service has two more similar, 15-year clearcut projects in the works on the Tongass. One, called the Central Tongass Project, is nearing a decision. That project would destroy an unspecified number of acres of rare ancient forest within an enormous 3.7-million-acre project area, larger than the state of Connecticut, with similar bad outcomes for wildlife, especially those dependent on blocks of contiguous forest habitat like marten and northern goshawks.
Again, Defenders is actively participating in the Central Tongass Project planning process and we will remain steadfast in preventing a return to the devastation of ancient trees in our nation’s largest forest. With your continued determination and support, we will succeed – and help return responsible habitat stewardship while protecting the imperiled species that rely on the Tongass.