Biden’s Environmental Virtue-Signaling Helps No One
Why does the left insist on treating Alaska as a wildlife sanctuary?
Over the years, we’ve watched as politicians have fought over the Final Frontier, with Republicans wanting to remove environmental restrictions to gain access to its wealth of natural resources while Democrats want to put up even more barriers to protect the natural splendor of its wilderness. This tug of war may never end, but the Biden Administration’s latest virtue-signaling environmental decision on the matter saw the Tongass National Forest close its roads and halt its logging — again.
The Biden administration recently reversed Trump’s decision from October 2020, one that exempted the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule, which barred road construction in 58 million acres of national forests and 9 million acres of the Tongass. Reversing the decision and reclosing the forest will stifle Alaska’s already-stunted economy and hurt the environment. But don’t worry: As a pay-off, the USDA pinky-promised to invest $25 million in Southeast Alaska’s “sustainable community development” — whatever that means.
Instead of putting the kibosh on industry in Alaska, Biden should seriously consider transferring federal lands into the hands of state or private owners, and trusting residents to foster a culture of conservation paired with sustainable development. Long-term conservation only works with the buy-in of communities.
The Tongass is the largest temperate rainforest in the world, covering 17 million acres. The forest is home to more than 70,000 people and the struggling Southeast Alaska timber mills. With the reinstatement of the Roadless Rule, only 326,000 acres, or two percent of the forest, is scheduled for harvest over the next 100 years. That’s hardly enough lumber to sustain one sawmill, let alone an industry.
To be fair, dropping the rule wouldn’t actually do much. Given the layers of regulations that hold development projects in the Tongass to high standards, like the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan, Trump’s removal of the Roadless Rule wouldn’t have increased timber harvests much, if at all. More than 50 projects, including mines, road construction, and timber sales, have been approved in the Tongass since 2001 despite the Roadless Rule. Removing the rule was an attempt to cut through the red tape delaying important projects, not to revitalize a dying timber industry.
A new picture emerges: President Trump didn’t authorize clear-cutting 9 million acres of pristine forest, driving global warming, and wiping out endangered species. His administration spent several years conducting environmental assessments, soliciting input from Alaskan communities, and finally concluded that the Roadless Rule was a pointless regulatory hurdle to road and timber projects that are overwhelmingly granted exceptions to the rule anyway.
So if removing the rule did little, and if reinstating has done less, then why did environmentalists cheer the Biden administration’s reinstatement of the Roadless Rule?
The Tongass holds eight percent of carbon reserves in the contiguous United States. Critics claim that logging releases carbon through the burning of timber products, contributing to climate change. But this doesn’t really apply: harvested wood from the Tongass is mostly sawlogs, which are suitable for home construction and specialty items, from pianos and violins to Alaska native cultural items, that lock up carbon for decades. The 2020 Tongass harvest saw approximately 19 million board feet in sawlogs, compared to 122,000 board feet in non-sawlogs.
Careful logging, as practiced in the Tongass, is good for forests. Logging encourages the growth of new plants and trees, and thinning the forest decreases the fuel available for forest fires, reducing their severity. The Tongass is not home to any threatened or endangered species, making it unlikely that removal of the Roadless Rule would have substantially harmed plant or animal life, and equally unlikely that Biden’s reinstatement protects them.
Environmental virtue-signaling ignores real, free-market solutions that simultaneously preserve the environment and human well-being. But long-term conservation requires the buy-in of communities, which is near-impossible when less than one percent of Alaska’s land is privately held. Some 60 percent is held by the federal government, leaving the state susceptible to flip-flopping regulations that destroy investor confidence in long-term projects.
Regulations like the Roadless Rule undermine states’ fight for custody of their lands from the federal government. Instead, the federal government should transfer some lands into the hands of their respective states or private owners — and trust the people to foster a culture of development paired with conservation, as Alaska has.
Environmental decisions ought to be guided by the original purpose of the Forest Service. Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 astutely noted that the primary object of forestry is “not to preserve forests because they are beautiful,” and “not to preserve them because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness,” though these are both worthy causes. “The primary object of the forest policy,” said Roosevelt, “is the making of prosperous homes... Every other consideration comes as secondary.”
Biden shouldn’t throw Alaska to the wolves just to prove he’s an environmentalist. Because even if he does, it’s not going to work.
Sarah Montalbano is the Research Associate at Alaska Policy Forum and a contributor to Young Voices. Her writing can be found in The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Anchorage Daily News.