As climate change comes for Alaska, Trump team seeks end to Tongass National Forest 'Roadless Rule'

A week ago Team Trump announced the completion of a draft environmental study proposing an end to the Roadless Rule in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest and one of the most spectacular remaining wildernesses in the world. Because the current secretary of agriculture is Sonny Perdue, because Alaska’s Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski have been pressing for the change, and because the Republican Party has long fumed at the notion of leaving any scrap of land unplundered by business interests, the move was expected. Perdue announced that his team’s preferred option, of those presented, would be to undo the Roadless Rule entirely, opening all 9.2 million acres to roads and allowing logging in 165,000 acres of ancient old-growth forests.

Given the thawing of Alaskan permafrost, the record high temperatures in the state, and the other ongoing effects of climate change, this plan could most accurately be called the burn it down option. To hell with what happens next: We’re grabbing what we can while the grabbing’s good.

A Climate Desk report by Wired (also republished by Mother Jones) attempts to explain just how damage both road-building and logging will inflict on otherwise pristine lands. It is a chain reaction. The cutting of trees or bare line of a road creates a new forest edge where there was none before. The ecology of that land changes, with new plants and wildlife moving in. The new treeline is now susceptible to wind it was previously protected from; in strong winds, more trees topple, the forest edge recedes again, and the process repeats.

That doesn’t account for the accidental transport of invasive species to the area, or the effects of new erosion on streams and rivers, or the temperature mitigation effects of the forest canopy, and so forth. The end results are available for all to see in the world’s most famous great deforestation project: the Amazon rainforest. Clearing the trees means changing the climate; changing the climate means the trees may no longer grow back.

As an aside, the notion that opening up wider areas of the Tongass might be a federal revenue-booster in the short term is also looking to be sketchy. A new study claims existing logging in Tongass has been a net loss to taxpayers to the tune of $600 million.

The public will be given until Dec. 17 to submit comments, after which Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue will ignore those comments, declare that the burn it down strategy wins, and the lawsuits will start. Yet again.

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