Lawsuit Takes Aim at Trump Administration Decision to Gut Tongass National Forest Protections

Time is running out to curb carbon emissions, but Tongass logging will only make climate change worse


Joel Jackson, Tribal President, Organized Village of Kake, (907) 518-1592

Robert Starbard, Tribal Administrator, Hoonah Indian Association

Lee Wallace, President, Organized Village of Saxman, (907) 617-3128

Linda Behnken, Executive Director, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, (907) 738-3615

Hunter McIntosh, President, The Boat Company

Dan Blanchard, CEO, Uncruise

Sally Schlichting, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), (907) 957-3488

Becky Knight, President, Alaska Rainforest Defenders

Corey Himrod, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 266-0426

Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518

Gwen Dobbs, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 329-9295

Katherine Quaid, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), (541) 325-1058

Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 519-8449

Rebecca Sentner, Audubon Alaska, (907) 276-7034

Chelsi Moy, The Wilderness Society, (406) 240-3013

Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity, (310) 779-4894

Josh Chetwynd, Environment America, (303) 573-5558

Mary Jo Brooks, National Wildlife Federation, (303) 441-5144

Rebecca Bowe, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2093

Alaska’s 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, sometimes called America’s Amazon, has faced a grave threat since the Trump administration stripped away critical safeguards against logging by exempting it from the federal Roadless Rule just before the election. Today, a wide-ranging coalition of Indigenous Tribes from Southeast Alaska, businesses, and conservation organizations filed a lawsuit targeting the Trump administration rollback.

Earthjustice and co-counsel Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of five Alaska Native Tribes, Southeast Alaska small businesses, and conservation organizations. The shortsighted rollback jeopardizes the ancestral homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. Many Indigenous communities continue to rely on the Tongass for wild food harvesting and traditional lifeways, and removing forest protections will have staggering consequences for their culture and food security.

The Tongass is also a champion at absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, as long as its trees remain intact. Cherished as a crown jewel of the National Forest system, the forest could serve as a cornerstone for a national climate strategy incorporating forest preservation for carbon sequestration. Yet eliminating the Roadless Rule across the Tongass opens some nine million acres of irreplaceable wild lands to timber industry logging proposals. This could usher in a new wave of clear-cutting, wiping out majestic centuries-old trees and degrading a key buffer against climate change.

Gutting the Roadless Rule imperils unique wildlife and clean waters, and threatens the livelihoods of commercial fishing families and small businesses in tourism and recreation. The Tongass produces some 25% of West Coast salmon, and attracts millions of visitors from throughout the world.

Plaintiffs joining the lawsuit issued the following statements:

“We are deeply concerned about the protection of the Tongass National Forest, where our ancestors have lived for 10,000 years or more,” said Joel Jackson, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake. “We still walk and travel across this traditional and customary use area, which is vast and surrounds all of our communities to the north, south, east and west. It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”

“The process used to create the Roadless Rule exemption was flawed,” said Lee Wallace, President of the Organized Village of Saxman. “The U.S.D.A ignored its trust responsibilities to tribes, failed to engage in meaningful consultation, ignored widespread opposition to the exemption, and favored the State of Alaska with $2 million in unlawful payments. This lawsuit is necessary to protect Tlingit and Haida peoples’ way of life and resources — not just for today but for future generations.”

“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. It is equally a stain upon the State of Alaska which colluded with the Trump Administration to circumvent scientific analysis to achieve a desired political outcome,” said Robert Starbard, Tribal Administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association. “Hoonah Indian Association accepted the USFS invitation to join the Tongass Roadless Rulemaking process as a cooperating agency believing that the federal government would approach the effort consistent with the intent of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and sought inclusion of the special expertise and relationship the tribes possess of the lands occupied since time immemorial. We ultimately withdrew as a cooperating agency when it became clear that our involvement was purely to provide political cover and lend legitimacy to a corrupted process with a preordained outcome. The Roadless Rule decision is fatally flawed and ignores the advice and expertise of the Tribal cooperating agencies and omits significant issues and concerns.”

“The Tongass Forest is my home. Home to the ancient Tlingit and Haida Indigenous Nations. It is where my ancestry originates, my bloodline is Indigenous to this land, its DNA is my DNA,” said Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist and Tongass Coordinator for the Women’​s Earth and Climate Action Network. “The air we breathe, the water we depend on, the land we live upon, all pristine. It is a life to cherish. It is a way of living worth fighting for. The repeal of the Roadless Rule will only lead to the destruction of our homelands, and subsequently the destruction of our communities who depend upon the abundance of the forest. This is an attack on our peoples and the climate. The Trump administration’s decision to open the Tongass to roads, logging and mining is an underhanded misuse of Congressional authority and the battle will go on — we will continue to rise in defense of our homelands.”

“The Tongass National Forest is Southeast Alaska’s SeaBank, providing annual dividends in fish, wildlife, and recreation as well unmatched ecosystem services that include water regulation, provisioning, habitat and cultural wealth,” said Linda Behnken, commercial fisherman and Executive Director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “SeaBank’s natural capital produces economic outputs worth several billion dollars per year to residents, visitors and society as a whole — and it will generate that output every year, provided we take care of the underlying natural capital of the forest, estuaries and ocean. Southeast Alaska’s future depends on safeguarding the natural capital that sustains our economy and cultural identity. It is time for decision-makers to see the forest for more than the board feet.”

“The Boat Company is a small cruise vessel eco-tour operator that provides hundreds of visitors each year with scenic views of southeast Alaska’s coastlines, fjords and forests,” said Hunter McIntosh, President of The Boat Company. “I cannot overstate the importance of inventoried Roadless areas to Southeast Alaska’s tourism and recreation economy. The Roadless Rule ensures these irreplaceable lands will remain protected and continue to draw visitors from throughout the globe. Remoteness, wildlife and scenery form the main visitor attractions in southeast Alaska, and bring in over a million visitors annually.”

“Southeast Alaska hosts two-thirds of all Alaska visitors, making it the most visited region of the state,” said Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise, a small vessel company providing outdoor recreation experiences. “Forest Service lands, particularly inventoried Roadless areas, are critical to drawing these visitors, and generate roughly $245 million annually — over two-thirds of Tongass National Forest visitor spending. We depend on the ability to market and provide unique recreation experiences, and our clients expect to see ‘wild’ Alaska and prefer intact natural landscapes. Clearcutting and timber road construction would force us to divert our travel routes to avoid seeing or being around clearcuts. This would negatively affect the outdoor recreation economy and Southeast Alaska’s reputation as an adventure travel destination.”

“As Southeast Alaskans are keenly aware, the public process around the Alaska-specific Roadless Rule, in which the Trump administration exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule itself, was flawed from the start,” said Meredith Trainor, Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has always gone to court to fight to save the places we love, and we are honored to do so today in partnership with Tribal leaders and other partners from the conservation community. We will work to reinstate Roadless Rule protections for our forest in the early days of the incoming Biden Administration, even as we challenge the Record of Decision from the dark days of Trump, in court.”

“Like so many of this administration’s environmental rollbacks and anti-environment policies, Trump’s rushed Tongass roadless rulemaking ignored sound science and public input at every step,” said Andy Moderow, Alaska director at Alaska Wilderness League. “Old-growth forests play a vital role in helping to slow climate change. The Tongass alone stores hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 and sequesters millions more annually. 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. We’re joining our partners to fight this extreme rollback and preserve some of the most intact expanses of temperate rainforest remaining in the world.”

“Alaskans, both statewide and those living in the region that includes the Tongass National Forest, commented in overwhelming numbers against removing or weakening any Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass,” said Becky Knight, president of the regional organization Alaska Rainforest Defenders. “They recognize the many causes for protecting the Tongass’ ecosystem integrity which is largely dependent on the sanctity of its roadless areas, and which are the reason for this lawsuit.”

“Preserving the Tongass is a matter of survival. It is essential to the subsistence culture and food security of Indigenous peoples. As one of the planet’s major carbon sinks, it is also essential for mitigating the climate crisis that threatens us all. We hope today’s action will bring renewed protections for the Tongass and those who depend on it,” said Andrea Feniger, Sierra Club Alaska Chapter Director.

“The Trump administration’s move to allow logging and road building in the wildest parts of the Tongass National Forest is wrong-headed and would have tragic consequences for the species that make it their homes,” said Ellen Montgomery, director of Public Lands Campaigns for Environment America. “The Tongass is home to trees older than our country and that old growth provides home to bears, wolves, salmon and hundreds of bird species. To come close to a goal of protecting 30 percent of our country’s lands and waters by 2030, the nearly 17 million acres of the Tongass must be protected — and this effort to open it up for crass commercial gain does just the opposite.”

“Stripping roadless protections for a shocking 9 million acres in the Tongass National Forest will pave the way for more old-growth clearcutting, destruction of wildlife habitat, and only add to our climate change and biodiversity loss woes,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director, Defenders of Wildlife. “We won’t back down until the protections of the Roadless Rule are reinstated.”

“The Trump administration’s removal of roadless protections on the Tongass National Forest is arbitrary and reckless,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska state director of The Wilderness Society. “Allowing logging and other industrial development in one of the most important old-growth rainforests in the world not only threatens centuries-old trees, but also jeopardizes one of the planet’s most productive carbon sequestration strongholds and a critical tool for addressing the climate crisis.”

“Trump’s reckless plan to clearcut old-growth trees in the Tongass will irreversibly damage our climate, kill wildlife and devastate Southeast Alaska communities,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re in the midst of climate and wildlife extinction crisis and the Tongass is a lifeline for our planet. We’ll do everything we can to make sure this spectacular forest is protected.”

“The Tongass National Forest is not only a climate stronghold for birds and other wildlife, its old-growth trees are the lungs of North America, serving a vital role in natural climate mitigation by absorbing carbon pollution from the atmosphere,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation policy at National Audubon Society. “At a time when a healthy climate must be a priority, destroying old-growth forests that are doing a fair share of the work is outrageous.”

“The large roadless areas of the Tongass provide outstanding habitat for a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Stripping protections from this forest to allow for road construction, clear cut logging, and other destructive activities in the Tongass will, degrade water quality, accelerate climate change impacts, and threaten local economies that rely on clean water,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. “The U.S. Forest Service ignored public input from Indigenous tribes, local communities and tens of thousands of people across the country, and it violated the law. The administration left us no choice but to go to court to protect this remarkable place for f outure generations.”

“This lawsuit is a direct response to the outgoing administration’s attempt to open Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to a new round of devastating clear-cuts in some of the most important remaining old-growth habitat in the forest,” said Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover. “The Trump administration ignored Tribes and Alaskans throughout this process, and is instead prioritizing illusive timber industry profits over the interests of Alaska Native people who have stewarded the land since time immemorial, small business operators whose livelihoods depend on an intact forest ecosystem, and everyone who benefits from this national forest’s unique ability to serve as a natural buffer against climate change.”

“We’re challenging an outrageous assault on America’s environment and all those who benefit from it, now and in future generations,” added Niel Lawrence, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Roadless Rule is a landmark achievement in conserving our natural heritage, our climate, and our public resources. It put an end to taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting of our last best wildlands. We’re not going to let Trump get away with this illegal effort to strip America’s great temperate rainforest of these vital protections.”

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