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Trump Wants To Exempt Tongass National Forest From Roadless Rule


The Trump administration wants to allow more logging in the country's biggest national forest. That's the Tongass in Alaska. It's supposed to help the timber industry, which is struggling there. But environmentalists and tribal governments really oppose this move.

From Alaska's Energy Desk, Elizabeth Jenkins has the story.

ELIZABETH JENKINS, BYLINE: The state of Alaska has been embroiled in a long legal battle over logging in this forest. And Buck Lindekugel has been there for much of it. He's an attorney with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

BUCK LINDEKUGEL: It's a little muddy, though. Watch yourself.

JENKINS: Today, we're hiking a slippery Juneau trail to spot the kind of trees Lindekugel has spent his entire career trying to protect.

LINDEKUGEL: See how green the understory is on this stuff?

JENKINS: The ground feels like a giant sponge. Looking up, you have to crane your neck to see the tops of all the trees. At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest engulfs most of southeast Alaska. It's part of the largest intact temperate rainforest on Earth, prized, he says, for helping the climate by storing huge amounts of carbon.

Lindekugel points to a massive tree with moss creeping up the side, likely 150 years old.

LINDEKUGEL: Yeah. That's a big spruce.

JENKINS: The U.S. Forest Service doesn't allow roads to be built or trees to be cut in this area. But now the Trump administration wants to exempt the Tongass from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule. That means prohibitions on logging could be removed for millions of acres of old-growth trees.

Historically, large-scale industrial logging in the Tongass damaged deer habitat and salmon streams. Through the years, tighter environmental regulations have made less of the land available for harvest. But Lindekugel thought it was a reasonable way to protect the wild food that fills many Alaskans' freezers.

LINDEKUGEL: For generations, people have used those lands for survival. That's their food security.

JENKINS: Public comments found most people want to keep the federal rule in place. But state officials have been pushing hard to exempt Alaska, in part to help its declining timber industry. Lindekugel doesn't think that makes sense in this day and age.

LINDEKUGEL: They're making the same arguments today that they made 30 years ago. Oh, the industry - if we don't do this, the industry's not going to survive. The industry can't survive as it is.

JENKINS: A short flight south of Juneau, in Ketchikan, one logging company president agrees. Times are hard. Eric Nichols heads Alcan Forest Products. In his office, he says calls to fix broken logging equipment start rolling in at the crack of dawn.


ERIC NICHOLS: Can I take this?


JENKINS: Nichols says operating here is expensive. He's overseeing logging camps in remote locations, sometimes only accessible by boat or a small plane. In 2018, the timber industry in Alaska employed just over 300 people. But that's not his only headache. Thanks to another change the Trump administration has made, Nichols now has to pay a tariff to export logs to his biggest customer, China. Since the summer, Alcan Forest Products' tariff on spruce trees has doubled.

NICHOLS: You know, 20% hit us out of the blue. I was - I really expected those guys to resolve their differences and solve this.

JENKINS: He says being able to log more valuable old-growth trees in the Tongass would give him some flexibility to ride out the current global market. But he expects this change to the Roadless Rule could be litigated for years. And he's not sure if he can wait.

NICHOLS: We're in our 60s. Most of the people in this industry is. You've got to decide whether - is there a next generation coming or not?

JENKINS: The Trump administration is expected to make a final decision on building roads and logging in the Tongass next year.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Jenkins in Juneau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Jenkins