When the Trump administration in October proposed exempting a national forest in Alaska from a rule that prevents logging and road construction within its borders, most of the attention focused on the Tongass, the largest old-growth forest in the U.S.
But it’s not the only Alaskan forest that might be affected.
The Forest Service proposal, on which the comment period closes Tuesday, could also open logging in the Chugach National Forest that hugs Anchorage to the south and spans about 7 million acres.
Exempting the Tongass, a 16.7 million-acre temperate rainforest, from the so-called “Roadless Rule” would mark a significant setback in trapping carbon dioxide emissions and a reversal of a rule that has protected about 60 million acres of federally managed forests for almost two decades.
Experts with the World Meteorological Organization said last month that the levels of greenhouse gases, which trees trap and hold, reached their highest point in history this year.
In announcing the proposal, the agency laid out six possibilities it could pursue for the forest, saying the “preferred” option is to exempt 9.2 million acres of the Tongass, more than 14,000 square miles, from the rule entirely.
The agency has received more than 28,000 comments on its proposal. A final rule is expected next year.
The effect of allowing roads in the smaller Chugach forest is less clear, partially because the Forest Service has not specified how many acres could be affected.
The Forest Service proposal says it “would provide an administrative procedure for correcting and modifying inventoried roadless area boundaries on the Chugach National Forest.”
Asked how the proposal could affect the Chugach, Babete Anderson, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email that the provision “is administrative in nature.” She did not say how many acres could be affected, nor does the proposed rule.
The inclusion of Chugach surprised environmentalist groups. But it did not come as a shock to Carl Portman, deputy director of the Resource Development Council, which supports rolling back the roadless protections in Tongass and Chugach.
Portman said the administration’s proposal “would allow forest managers to tap parts of the forest where logging could be more cost-effective.”
“That, in turn, would help local sawmills and boost the economy in Southeast Alaska,” Portman said.
Speaking of changes to the Chugach territory, “the boundary adjustments are minor,” he said. An industry group that represents logging interests, the RDC, is urging members to submit comments in favor of a full exemption of the Roadless Rule from the Tongass.
Removing the rule from applying to Alaskan wilderness has been a long-held GOP goal, and Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy urged the Forest Service to exempt the Tongass.
“It came as a surprise,” Mike Anderson, an analyst with The Wilderness Society, an environmental group against the rollbacks, said of the Chugach provision.
As written, the proposed rule gives the Forest Service broad and vague powers to modify forest boundaries, Anderson said. “It ends up being very open-ended,” he said.
Andy Moderow, a director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said the inclusion of Chugach surprised him too.
“I think that the Chugach angle is so understated,” Moderow said. “It’s kind of an afterthought.”