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WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Tuesday took a step toward opening the untouched forests of the Alaskan Tongass National Forest to logging and road, saying it would prefer the end of all forest-wide road construction restrictions.
The widely anticipated move comes after years of encouragement from successive Alaska governors and congressional delegations, who pressured the federal government to exempt Tongass, the country's largest national forest, from a Clinton-era policy known as the rule without road, which prohibited logging and road construction in much of the national forest system. A final rule is not expected until next June.
On Tuesday, the US Forest Service, which is under the Department of Agriculture, stepped forward and put its weight behind a final decision that would be welcomed by most politicians in the state but feared by environmentalists. .
The Forest Service has announced that it has prepared an environmental study draft analyzing the impacts of changing or lifting the Roadless Rule in Tongass Forest, which includes 165,000 acres of hemlock, cedar and spruce trees. The study, to be published this week, looked at six possible changes to the rule. One option would maintain restrictions on 80% of the area currently protected by the rule, another would open about 2.3 million acres for logging and construction, and another would lift all roadless rules restrictions in the forest.
The Forest Service, backed by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, called the suspension of the entire Tongass road rule the government's "preferred option."
Alaska supporters said this would be an economic benefit to their state, while conservationists lamented the possible destruction of vast areas of primeval forest.
"I am delighted that the government has listened to the Alaskans and proposed a total exemption from the road rule as their preferred alternative," said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "I thank President Trump, Secretary Perdue, and the Forest Service team for their hard work in reaching this point – and for their continued efforts to restore reasonable access to the Tongass National Forest."
Randi Spivak, director of public land at the Center for Biological Diversity, said: "Alaska's elected officials are selling their constituents and robbing future generations, trying to remove protection from one of the oldest primeval forests in the world."
She predicted that the plan "would stifle vital streams of wild salmon with sediment and irreparably harm subsistence hunters."
After the study is published, members of the public will have until December 17 to submit comments, which should inform the Department of Agriculture as Perdue moves to a final decision, scheduled for June 2020.
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