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Trump Administration Releases Plan to Open Tongass Forest to Logging

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday finalized its plan to open about nine million acres of the pristine woodlands of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction.

The administration’s effort to open the Tongass, the nation’s largest national forest, has been in the works for about two years, and the final steps to complete the process have been widely expected for months. They come after years of prodding by successive Alaska governors and congressional delegations, which have pushed the federal government to exempt the Tongass from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system.

The United States Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, on Friday published an environmental study concluding that lifting the roadless rule protections in the Tongass would not significantly harm the environment. That study will allow the agency to formally lift the rule in the Tongass within the next 30 days, clearing the way for the Trump administration to propose timber sales and road construction projects in the forest as soon as the end of this year.

In a 2019 draft of the study, the Forest Service said it would consider six possible changes to the rule. One option would have maintained restrictions in 80 percent of the area currently protected by the rule; another would have opened up about 2.3 million acres to logging and construction. In a statement released Thursday night, the Department of Agriculture said that its “preferred alternative” is to “fully exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule,” which would open the nine million acres to development.

The move comes as President Trump wraps up a first term in which he aggressively targeted environmental protections, rolling back or weakening more than 100 regulations that had been designed to protect the nation’s air, water and public lands from pollution. But like many of those rollbacks, the protections to the Tongass could be fairly easily reinstated if former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the presidential election.

Supporters in Alaska said have long said that lifting the roadless rule protections in their state would provide a sorely needed economic boost. Environmentalists say that it could devastate a vast wilderness of snowy peaks, rushing rivers and virgin old-growth forest that is widely viewed as one of America’s treasures.

Climate scientists also point out that the Tongass, which is also one of the world’s largest temperate rain forests, offers an important service to the billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to ever set foot there: It is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of about 8 percent of the carbon stored in all the forests of the lower 48 states combined.

Scientists have criticized the Forest Service’s assessment that lifting the roadless rule would not cause significant environmental harm, saying that it disregards the agency’s own scientific findings that cutting down trees in the Tongass would release harmful amounts of greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere at a time when the warming planet is already fueling deadly wildfires, storms and heat waves.

“The Forest Service’s environmental impact statement is junk science on assessing the impacts of releasing the carbon,” said Dominick DellaSala, a scientist with the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization. “They are saying that the carbon that would be released by logging the timber is insignificant,” he said. “There’s no science that supports their analysis.”

Mr. DellaSala has calculated that the carbon dioxide emissions from logging the 160,000 acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass that would now be open to the timber industry would create the equivalent of adding about 10 million cars to the road.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, who has urged Mr. Trump to lift the rule, contends that removing the roadless protections would help Alaska’s economy, but not necessarily lead to the loss of major swaths of the forest. In a 2019 opinion article in The Washington Post, she wrote, “The one-size-fits-all roadless rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska,” adding that it hurts the timber industry but “also affects mining, transportation, energy and more.”

She also said that “lifting the roadless rule would not automatically result in the development of more of the forest.” Lifting the rule, she said, would not affect the entire forest but would open about nine million of the forest’s 16 million acres. The rest of the land would remain protected under other state and federal statutes.

Environmentalists said the devastation to the forest could still be consequential.

“Make no mistake,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, an advocacy group. “This is about gutting protections for the largest carbon sink and the most biologically rich national forest in the United States. This is America’s Amazon.”

Mr. Kolton noted that the opening of the Tongass to development comes as part of a broader push by Mr. Trump to lift longstanding protections across Alaska’s wilderness. The administration has also opened up the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, and this year proposed to open almost all of the National Petroleum Reserve, far to the west of the refuge, to additional drilling.

“They are places that sit at the center of three big crises our country is facing — the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and racial justice,” said Mr. Kolton, noting that Alaska Native tribes living in those areas have also opposed the developments.

The administration had until last month been moving swiftly to grant a permit to Pebble Mine, a vast proposed gold and copper extraction facility, until the president’s son Donald J. Trump Jr. publicly opposed it. Last month the administration imposed new conditions on that project which could delay the permit until after the election.