Lawsuit challenges Trump's lifting of roadless rule in Alaska's Tongass forest

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – A coalition of Alaska Native tribes and environmentalists filed suit on Wednesday challenging a new Trump administration policy that opens vast swaths of the largest U.S. national forest to logging, mining and other commercial development.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump poses on the Truman Balcony of the White House after returning from being hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment, in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

The lawsuit, joined by tourism and fishing organizations, seeks to reinstate prohibitions on road-building through previously protected areas in the Tongass National Forest of southeastern Alaska, the world’s largest temperate rain forest.

The Clinton-era rule, effectively banning timber harvests and mineral extraction in undeveloped areas of national forests across the country, was lifted for the Tongass in October, part of President Donald Trump’s aim of easing various environmental regulations opposed by industry.

It marked a victory for state officials who petitioned for the change because they said the roadless rule – closing off 9.2 million acres (3.7 million hectares) of the 17-million-acre (6.8-million-hectare) Tongass – had cost Alaskans jobs.

But Wednesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Juneau, said the Trump policy imperiled indigenous tribal homelands and the ecosystem supporting southeast Alaska’s fishing and tourism industries, while disregarding sound science.

“The need for this litigation is a mark of shame upon the federal government for violating the trust and responsibilities it has to the indigenous peoples of the Tongass,” Robert Starbard, tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Association, said in a statement.

The lawsuit also said increased logging in the Tongass would undermine efforts to combat global warming because the forest is a significant natural repository for stored carbon.

“The complete removal of roadless protections on the Tongass will only worsen the climate crisis, not to mention fragment wildlife habitat and destroy salmon runs,” Andy Moderow of the Alaska Wilderness League said.

U.S. Forest Service representatives were not immediately available for comment on the lawsuit. But the agency has said its Tongass exemption plan would allow new timber production on fewer than 200,000 acres (81,000 hectares), while permitting no more than 50 additional miles (80 km) of road construction over the next century.

The national roadless rule was imposed in 2001 in the last days of President Bill Clinton’s administration. It was challenged by Alaska and, at times, other states seeking exemptions. The most recent court rulings, in 2015 and 2016, upheld the rule for the Tongass.

The incoming Biden administration could reverse the Trump policy and accomplish the lawsuit’s objective, plaintiffs’ attorney Kate Glover said.

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