By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter
More than 200 scientists urged Congress in a letter today to protect the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from increased logging of old-growth trees, an issue that’s in the background of budget negotiations in the Senate.
The 220 researchers, mainly from universities and nonprofit organizations, spoke out against proposals by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to exempt the Tongass and Chugach national forests from rules limiting road construction in national forests and to slow the Forest Service’s transition to younger-growth timber in the Tongass.
Those proposals are in a fiscal 2018 spending bill drafted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Murkowski chairs the Interior and Environment Subcommittee. They could become part of an omnibus spending package, along with measures to address the rising cost of wildfires.
“Nowhere are the benefits of protecting roadless areas and similar ecologically important lands greater than on the Tongass,” the scientists wrote. “With towering old-growth trees that can live 700-1,000 years, it is our country’s largest expanse of native forest and one of the last remaining intact coastal rainforests in the world.”
“We urge you to vote against any bill containing these riders, for the sake of America’s publicly owned natural heritage, the fish, wildlife, biodiversity, and people dependent on its continued well-being, and our country’s leadership on native forest conservation that is vital to containing climate damage,” they wrote.
Roadless forest areas help control floods, supply clean drinking water and act as “carbon sinks” in lessening human-induced climate change, they said.
Murkowski has said easing road restrictions is critical to what’s left of the timber industry in southeast Alaska, as much of the region’s milling industry has disappeared in recent decades. And while she has said she supports younger-growth timber harvest, Murkowski has said the Forest Service needs a more complete forest inventory in order to know whether younger growth is viable.
Her proposal, which Murkowski added to the Interior bill in December, would block the agency’s transition plan, now set at 16 years, until such an inventory is complete.
“The Roadless Rule has blocked responsible economic development opportunities throughout Southeast Alaska,” a spokeswoman for the ENR Committee, Nicole Daigle, said in a statement. “Whether it’s timber, mining, hydropower or basic transmission, all require some road construction in order to be economic. The Roadless Rule never made sense in Alaska, and it’s time that Alaska’s exemption be reinstated permanently.”
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