The state of Alaska’s 2018 request to exempt Tongass National Forest from environmental protections has cleared a major step in its evaluation process. The U. S. Forest Service released a study indicating that loosening protections would not have significant impacts on Tongass, though environmental advocates are skeptical of its conclusions. The Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement considered several alternatives, but ultimately recommended a full exemption to the Roadless Rule for Tongass.
Seeking Exemption to the Roadless Rule, a Clinton-Era Protection of National Forests
National Forest System lands are protected by the 2001 Roadless Rule, which “establishes prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres” of public land. After weighing national policy concerns against giving discretion to local decisionmakers, the final rule was adopted in 2001 with the intention of providing lasting protection. It concluded that local exemptions to nationwide protections could have significant negative impacts on lands subject to roadless protections. The rule therefore opted for complete protection of 58.5 million acres of “roadless” areas, comprising just two percent of the United States’ continental landmass. Successive Alaskan administrations, however, have pushed for Roadless Rule exemptions, and the current proposal would open 9 million of Tongass’ 16 million acres to commercial activity.
Though the Tongass proposal purports an economic boost to the Alaskan market, environmentalists worry about the proposal’s potential impact on what has been called “America’s Amazon.” They argue that timber logging in Tongass would increase greenhouse gas emissions. One of the world’s largest carbon sinks, Tongass stores the equivalent of about eight percent of the carbon stored in all the forests of the lower 48 states combined.
Pro-Industry Changes to Public Lands Protections Include Privatization and Reductions in Fees
The Tongass recommendation is consistent with the Trump administration’s broader loosening of environmental protections in favor of industry and economic considerations. A New York Times tabulation counted 100 environmental rules reversed by the Trump administration, a majority in air pollution, emissions, drilling, and extraction.
The economic justifications for Tongass recommendations parallel the logic cited by the administration to lower royalty rates for onshore drilling on public lands. In June, meanwhile, the administration requested an environmental impact statement for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota to initiate the process of putting forth a copper mine proposal. Boundary Waters has over 1,000 waterways formed by receding glaciers, and the area’s economy depends on pristine waterways for more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes.
In addition, oil and gas drilling leases in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge may be auctioned as early as the end of 2020. The Refuge has been called the “biological heart of a priceless ecosystem” by environmentalists, citing its vial function as a sanctuary for caribou, polar bears, and other animals. Opponents of these and other Trump administration initiatives are sounding the alarm that the administration is rushing forward without sufficient research, legitimate science, or environmental impact studies.
 Press Release, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture Releases Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Alaska Roadless Rule, (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2020/09/24/us-department-agriculture-releases-final-environmental-impact.
Coral Davenport, Trump Administration Releases Plan to Open Tongass Forest to Logging, New York Times, (Sept. 24, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/24/climate/tongass-logging.html?referringSource=articleShare&gsBNFDNDN=undefined&utm_campaign=wp_the_energy_202&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_energy202.
 United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Final Environmental Impact Statement, (Sept. 2020), https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/109834_FSPLT3_5357355.pdf.
 2001 Roadless Rule, 36 C.F.R. §294 (2001), https://www.fs.usda.gov/roadmain/roadless/2001roadlessrule
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 2.
 Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka & Kendra Pierre-Louis, The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List., New York Times, (July 15, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html.
 Id. at 12.
 See Chicago-Kent Journal of Environmental and Energy Law, Bureau of Land Management Reduces Royalty Rates for Onshore Drilling Operators, (Oct. 2, 2020), https://studentorgs.kentlaw.iit.edu/ckjeel/2020/10/02/bureau-of-land-management-reduces-royalty-rates-for-onshore-drilling-operators/.
 Alison Flint, Trump clears way for toxic mine in Boundary Waters watershed, The Wildnerness Society, (June 29, 2020), https://www.wilderness.org/articles/press-release/trump-clears-way-toxic-mine-boundary-waters-watershed.
 Bill Chappel & Liz Ruskin, Trump Administration Moves Closer To Allowing Oil Drilling In Arctic Refuge, NPR, (Aug. 17, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/08/17/903239366/trump-administration-sets-plan-for-oil-drilling-in-arctic-refuge.
 Id. at 16.
 Id. at 15-16.