Joel Jackson has lived his whole life in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, where he is the leader of a tribal community called the Organized Village of Kake. People in his community hunt deer and fish for salmon in streams that stay cool because of the old-growth forest.
But the 66-year-old was worried about damage to this land, which is the largest Tongass National Forest in the US, after former President Donald Trump got rid of a rule that stopped logging and road building on nine million acres of land in the Tongass in 2020.
Mr. Jackson said, “The forest has been essential to our survival as a people and to our way of life for thousands of years.”
Mr. Jackson and other tribes and environmental groups who asked the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect the forest again won a long-awaited victory last week.
The agency said on Wednesday that it would again stop logging and building roads to cut down trees in more than half of the Tongass.
The decision came after years of disagreement between Alaskan Republican officials, who said the rule slowed economic growth and that renewing it would make it harder to connect remote communities by road, and conservationists, indigenous groups, and others who said the rule was important for protecting the environment.
The Tongass covers nearly 17 million acres, which is about the same size as the state of West Virginia. According to the Alaska Conservation Foundation, 44% of all the carbon dioxide in the country’s national forests is stored in the Tongass.
It is one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests that is still mostly unspoiled. It is home to cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce trees that are 800 years old and help provide homes for more than 400 species of land and sea animals.
Experts on the environment say that protecting the Tongass National Forest is the best way to keep biodiversity and slow down climate change.
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent statement that the decision to stop logging and building roads in the Tongass was based on the voices of Tribal Nations and the people of Southeast Alaska. It also took into account how important fishing and tourism are to the region’s economy.
The protections, called the “roadless rule,” were first put in place by the government of former President Bill Clinton in 2001 to stop logging in certain areas of US national forests.
After people from the state of Alaska asked him to do so, Mr. Trump took away the protections for the Tongass in 2020.
In a statement released last week, Republican Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski said that the Biden Administration’s decision to bring back protections turned “the Tongass into a political football” and would slow down economic growth in the area.
Dan Sullivan, another senator, agreed with her. In a statement, he said, “I will fight this decision with everything I have.” Governor Mike Dunleavy called the USDA’s decision a “huge loss for Alaskans.”
But a number of businesses and groups in the area said they didn’t agree.
Gordon Chew, who owns a small, family-run business in the area called Tenakee Logging Company, said that the number of lumber jobs in the Tongass National Forest has gone down over the past 30 years. But he said that this is not because of the roadless rule, but because of things like rising fuel prices and the fact that Alaska is so far away that it is hard to get to.
“If you believe in global warming and know how important it is to store carbon, if you like fishing and want to promote tourism, the roadless rule helps all of these things,” he said.
Meredith Trainor, the head of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said that the roadless rule was always controversial with Alaska politicians but not so much with the public.
She said, “It’s really important to have the rule in place so that logging doesn’t start up again in these areas of uncut forests.”
Even though Mr. Jackson was happy about the rule change, he said he wouldn’t feel better until these protections were made permanent, which he said might need approval from Congress.
He said that could be his next fight.
He said, “It’s like walking into one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world when you enter the forest.” “I don’t want my grandchildren or their grandchildren to have to fight for that too.”