Trump Administration Seeks To Expand Development In Tongass National Forest : Short Wave The Trump administration has officially eliminated federal protections for Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. With the rollback of the Roadless Rule, nine million previously-protected acres are now open further to potential development. What does that mean for trees that have been storing carbon for centuries?

For more on this story, check out the episode page. You can email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Trump Administration Lifts Protections For Largest National Forest In US

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SOFIA: Maddie Sofia here with our very own SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong. Hey, you.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, Maddie. So remember this time last year, I took you and our listeners to the Tongass National Forest?

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SOFIA: Yes, the largest intact, temperate rainforest in the world in southeast Alaska - you taught me that - your former home.

KWONG: Well done. Yes, I worked at a member station there. And for years, I just ran around in rubber rain boots beneath skies of bald eagles and ravens, hoping to spot a whale, hoping not to run into a bear.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Just like D.C. Just like D.C.

KWONG: (Laughter) But the best part of the Tongass, Maddie, are the trees - big, dense forests that have earned this part of Alaska a lot of attention.

SOFIA: Right. And last time, we talked about how this forest is the focal point of a decades-long debate about logging access and road construction there. And today, we have an update on the story.

KWONG: That's right. So the Trump administration, specifically the Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has officially decided to make the Tongass exempt from a public lands rule that's been in place on and off since 2001 called the Roadless Rule. And this rule limits road building and industrial activity in this rainforest.

SOFIA: And this could have implications far beyond Alaska, right?

KWONG: Absolutely, yeah. The trees of the Tongass have been storing carbon for centuries, but with the removal of the Roadless Rule, 9 million acres previously protected could be open to potential development.

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SOFIA: On today's show, we're going to revisit that episode from last year about the trees of the Tongass.

KWONG: And then hear the latest from a reporter on the ground about where this rule change and the future of the Tongass stands under a Biden presidency. You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SOFIA: OK, so we're talking about the Tongass National Forest. Where do you want to start?

KWONG: I want to start with Anthony Christianson.

SOFIA: OK.

KWONG: People call him Tony. He was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island. The population there is just shy of 400.

SOFIA: A little, baby town.

KWONG: That's true. And Tony is the mayor. He knows the Tongass well because he lives in it.

ANTHONY CHRISTIANSON: A lot of people say the forest here is almost impenetrable. It's so thick and you can't see anything. So, you know, it runs right from the beach fringe to the top of the mountains we have here on Prince of Wales.

KWONG: The Tongass is massive - nearly 17 million acres. And walking through it, Maddie, it's like being in a fantasy novel, I must say. If you can imagine, you have hemlock and red cedar, yellow cedar, spruce trees. Some of them are enormous - skyscrapers, wide as cars. We're not talking exactly about trees you can hug.

SOFIA: You don't know how long my arms are.

KWONG: (Laughter) We're talking about old-growth forests, some of the most ancient trees in America - 400, 500, even 800-plus years old. And it's here that Tony and his family have hunted and fished for generations. Tony is a member of the Haida Tribe. And the Tongass is their indigenous land.

CHRISTIANSON: I am comprised of the elements of the land around me because I've lived on deer meat and berries and fish my whole life. It's the main staple of my - at my family dinner. I mean, last night was fried sockeye and greens off the beach. And so it definitely shapes the community here.

SOFIA: And I have to imagine it has, like, a pretty big role in the economy, too.

KWONG: Absolutely. You know, he grew up on the deck of a fishing boat. The Tongass is a huge spawning site for wild salmon on the West Coast. And as a teenager in the 1990s, Tony found work through the logging industry. His family operated a tugboat that helped load massive trees onto ships for export to China, Japan and other places.

How big were these logs that you were pulling onto the tugboat?

CHRISTIANSON: Some of the timber is huge. When you're getting into old growth, you're talking, you know, 5, 6 feet across the butt.

KWONG: Wow, that's massive.

CHRISTIANSON: Yeah, they're massive trees when you're logging old growth. And...

KWONG: This is peak timber. Prince of Wales was dotted with logging camps in this time.

CHRISTIANSON: So just a lot of companies, a lot of people working in the industry. And, you know, money was flowing as timber corporations were logging a lot of timber and making money at it.

KWONG: This happened in Sitka, too, where I used to live. Trees have long been economically important to the region, but they're critical for something else, too - sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Do you know about the carbon cycle?

SOFIA: I've heard of her.

KWONG: It's that cycle where trees draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away for centuries, store it in their leaves and stems, branches and roots. And that natural process of carbon sequestration in trees - it's really critical when we think about, you know, how much excess carbon is in the atmosphere.

SOFIA: So from, like, a global warming perspective, this is pretty important.

KWONG: Exactly.

DOMINICK DELLASALA: We need those rainforests to survive.

KWONG: That's Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Oregon.

DELLASALA: And the trees will do fine without us, but they're pulling that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and acting as the planet's lungs.

KWONG: So you can imagine why Dominick was pretty distraught when news broke that the U.S. Forest Service wants to exempt Alaska from something called the Roadless Rule.

SOFIA: Talk me through that a little bit more, Kwong.

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KWONG: Well, the Roadless Rule has been kicking around since the Clinton administration. It bans road building and logging on designated areas. But the Forest Service, at the request of Alaskan leadership, like Senator Lisa Murkowski...

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LISA MURKOWSKI: So, you know, I always have to talk about the Tongass when we're talking about our U.S. national - our forests.

KWONG: She and other lawmakers have been pushing for a change to the Roadless Rule for years.

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MURKOWSKI: But about 93% of its lands are off-limits to most development, which certainly does not benefit the 32 islanded communities that are located there. It's really hard to have an economy when everything is off-limits to you. More access is needed...

SOFIA: OK, so this is obviously a very complicated situation. But from a strictly environmental perspective, is that bad?

KWONG: Well, it's troubling, right? If you consider that the Tongass contains an estimated 8% of carbon in America's forests...

SOFIA: Wow.

KWONG: ...Cutting that down would undoubtedly release carbon into the atmosphere.

SOFIA: And how is that?

KWONG: Well, one way he measures what's lost is through something called the leaky bucket metaphor.

SOFIA: OK, go on.

KWONG: Picture the forest as a big bucket of water with holes in it.

SOFIA: Done.

KWONG: As long as water is falling into the bucket at the same rate as it's leaking out, there's no net loss of that water, right? Same with carbon. So as long as the forest can capture the same amount of carbon as is being lost through tree death and decomposition, even logging, it's OK.

DELLASALA: But if you cut down that forest, all of a sudden you have punched really big holes in the bucket. And so even though the forest is growing back, you've punched so many holes in that bucket you've lost most of the carbon in the original forest bucket. And those holes are so big from the logging you never really capture the amount of carbon that was in the original forest bucket.

KWONG: Now, I should say the timber industry in Southeast Alaska is a shadow of what it used to be in the late 20th century. And relaxing the Roadless Rule will likely create jobs. But it would also do the kinds of things to the environment that Tony fears. Alaskans are already struggling with climate change. The state is heating up twice as fast as the global average.

SOFIA: I mean, this feels like a lot of the climate reporting we do, right? It's not straightforward. There are people that need jobs. The economy, you know, obviously needs to prosper in those areas. But it's, you know, at the cost of the environment, which they also depend on.

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KWONG: So, Maddie, it's been a full year since that episode. And a final decision by the Trump administration has been made, but not without members of the public weighing in.

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SHANIA MURPHY: When you log that forest, it's going to be like cutting my arm off because this place is a part of me, and it's in my DNA, living here for hundreds of years. It's just part of me and every Alaska native here.

KWONG: That's Shania Murphy at a hearing in Ketchikan, Alaska, in the heart of the Tongass. Eleven Alaskan native tribes signed a joint letter saying they wanted greater say in how the forest was managed. And the Forest Service, in response to its effort to get rid of the Roadless Rule, received thousands of unique comments from all over the U.S., including Alaska. And the majority - 96% - voiced support to keep the rule in place.

SOFIA: Ninety-six percent is a lot.

KWONG: It's a lot. But Eric Jordan, a fisherman in Sitka, kind of called the final outcome a year ago.

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ERIC JORDAN: This process is a sham.

KWONG: He said the public input likely wouldn't amount to much.

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JORDAN: Not your words, not your testimony, but the fact that this administration in Washington, D.C., and Juneau, Alaska, are going to ignore your comments. And you should be outraged.

KWONG: Someone who's been following this issue really closely is Eric Stone. So he's a reporter at KRBD in Ketchikan. And basically, he says the reason this is happening is because the people who want to keep the Roadless Rule in place and the people who hold most of the power in Alaska are two different sets of people.

ERIC STONE, BYLINE: Both an independent governor and a Republican governor have asked the Forest Service to roll back these protections because they see them as forestalling development here in Southeast Alaska for Southeast Alaskans.

SOFIA: What kind of development are we actually talking about here, Kwong?

KWONG: We're talking about logging, for sure, but all kinds of development. Like, it might be easier for mining and renewable energy projects to get off the ground, too.

STONE: We have a lot of rain and steep slopes here. So hydroelectricity is a big thing here, in addition to things like, you know, roads, right?

KWONG: Roads to connect those 32 island communities. Telecommunications projects could be big, high-speed Internet.

SOFIA: OK.

KWONG: But it would all go down in America's biggest carbon sink. And that's concerning not only for Alaska's environment, but for the world.

SOFIA: So what happens now when President-elect Biden comes into office?

KWONG: Yeah, so it would likely take an act of Congress to reverse this action, if there was the will for that, and reinstate the Roadless Rule in some way. The Biden administration could go through the federal rulemaking process all over again.

SOFIA: Like kind of going back to the drawing board on it.

KWONG: Right. Or if the Democrats take control of the Senate, there would be enough votes to set into motion the Congressional Review Act. It's a law that gives Congress the power to instantly overturn rules by federal agencies.

STONE: A researcher with the Congressional Research Service says that it would basically be like the rule had never taken effect.

KWONG: So while it's theoretically possible, Eric has some doubts that congressional action would happen because, again, Alaskan leadership has long wanted this for decades.

STONE: I don't really see the decision to roll it back being reversed. So I'm interested to see how this impacts future development in Alaska, whether we will see, you know, higher harvest levels, whether we will see additional development that we wouldn't have otherwise seen.

KWONG: And, look; developing in the Tongass still comes with red tape. There's permits, environmental impact studies. There's limitations, actually, on how much timber can be harvested. So there wouldn't be an explosion in logging.

SOFIA: Got it.

KWONG: But you can think of the Roadless Rule as the biggest piece of red tape, now cut. And we don't entirely know how the forest could be transformed by this change.

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SOFIA: All right, Emily Kwong, thank you for bringing us this update.

KWONG: You're welcome, Maddie.

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SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. Alex Drewenskus was the audio engineer. Special thanks to KRBD's Eric Stone for his reporting on this episode. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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