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Trump moves to open Tongass National Forest for logging, to environmentalists’ dismay

During his first term, President Trump has rolled back or weakened more than 100 environmental regulations. On Friday, his administration moved to open up the country’s largest national forest for development. Alaska’s Tongass National Forest has been called “America’s Amazon,” and it absorbs about 8 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Amna Nawaz talks to The New York Times’ Coral Davenport.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since he was elected, President Trump has rolled back or weakened more than 100 environmental regulations.

    Today, he added yet another. His administration moved to open up the nation's largest national forest for development.

    Amna Nawaz has the latest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska has been called America's Amazon. It's one of the world's largest temperate rain forests, absorbing carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S., which is why the plan to roll back protections is worrying environmentalists and climate scientists.

    Coral Davenport has been following this story for The New York Times, and she joins me now.

    Coral, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's just start with what exactly it is that the Trump administration is proposing changing. What would the rollbacks entail?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, the Trump administration proposed — has been working on this role change for a couple of years.

    What's about to happen is that, in the next 30 days, it's going to become final. What they're doing is lifting a Clinton era protection. It's called the roadless rule. It was a national law that banned logging and road construction in most of the nation's forests.

    The Trump administration is lifting the roadless rule in seven million acres of the 16 million-acre Tongass National Forest. So, that is a huge amount of pretty much pristine wilderness, including about 160,000 acres of virgin old growth forest that would now be open to logging, construction, road development.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the Trump administration, we should point out, is not alone and pushing for this. Officials on the ground in Alaska, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, have been pushing for this for years.

    What is the argument that they make for these changes?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, the big argument that Alaskan officials, including the governor, including a lot of state-level officials, say is that this is — this is part of Alaska's economic development.

    They argue that lifting the — that lifting the roadless rule would not lead to the entire pristine forest being devastated, but that it would allow the Alaskan timber industry to kind of carefully tailor the logging that it would do, the road construction that it would do in that area.

    But, essentially, they're saying that they need it for their state economy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK, so what about the environmentalists, the climate scientists? Why is it that they are opposed for a range of issues and reasons here? Why is it they're opposed to this rollback right now?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, the Tongass is a special place.

    It's not surprising, of course, that environmentalists oppose lifting protections on this wild, pristine wilderness. It's a rich — it's an area rich in biodiversity. It houses a lot of species. It has salmon. It has rivers. These are the kinds of things that environmentalists say, you don't want to harm that biodiversity.

    But the thing that is also special about the Tongass is that it provides a service to the rest of — it is one of the world's largest carbon sinks. All of that old growth forests, those 400-, 500-year-old trees have been absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

    And so environmentalists say that the impact of cutting down those particular trees could release the equivalent of putting as many as 10 million new cars on the road, the CO2 pollution equivalent.

    And so that's — that is something that has an impact on the planet, far beyond the reaches just of this one forest in Alaska.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Coral, as we have seen with previous proposed rollbacks on the environmental protections from this administration, they have been met pretty quickly by litigation.

    Do we expect the same thing to happen here? And, also, where does this move fit with the broader agenda from the administration.

  • Coral Davenport:


    So, this comes as one of literally over 100 rollbacks or moves to weaken existing environmental protections that we have seen from the Trump administration. This is really something that will absolutely stand, in many ways, as President Trump's legacy.

    He met the promise to the lift a lot of these environmental protections and open up so much public land to development. But, as you mentioned, nearly all of these moves are being met with litigation.

    Fully expect that environmental groups and probably state groups and probably Alaskan Native groups as well are expected to sue this move. And, as with so many of these other rollbacks, ultimately, they will slog through the courts.

    And, also, a lot of these could be done pretty quickly if Joe Biden were to become president. This is a move that will become effective before the end of this year. But if there was someone in the White House who thought that was not a good idea, the rule could be right — put right back in place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a very important environmental story being tracked by Coral Davenport of The New York Times, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Great to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this story is part of Covering Climate Now. It's a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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