This article was originally published on February 8, 2023 by the Wall Street Journal.
Let Alaska Develop Its Natural Resources
By Sarah Montalbano
The Biden administration has reinstated a 2001 rule imposing unnecessarily strict regulations on Tongass National Forest.
The Biden administration officially restricted logging and road building in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest on Jan. 27—the latest instance of official environmental virtue-signaling at the expense of Alaskans who want to access the state’s resources.
A 2001 regulation known as the Roadless Rule prohibits timber harvesting and road construction on 58 million acres of U.S. Forest Service lands in designated areas. That’s about a third of America’s national forests, or 56% of the Tongass’ 16.7 million acres.
The Tongass is the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world, a place where Sitka spruce, western hemlock and cedars flourish. The forest contains no endangered species. Keeping it open would increase access for scientists, teachers and recreation.
The Trump administration made a small portion of the Tongass available for logging and road construction in 2020. The change would have opened up only 186,000 more acres to timber harvesting and only roughly 50 more miles of new roads over the next 100 years. But investors never got a chance to capitalize on this small allowance. Within hours of President Biden’s inauguration, the White House had announced a review of the Roadless Rule and suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The result of the review was to roll back the 2020 exemption and reinstate the limits established in 2001.
The Roadless Rule is outdated. Written more than 20 years ago, it reflects none of the technological and scientific changes that balance sustainable forest management with economic development. Selective cutting of some trees is good for forests, since thinning the forest decreases the fuel for forest fires and allows light to penetrate to the forest floor, which encourages the growth of new trees and reduces mold and fungus damage.
More than 70,000 people live within the Tongass’s boundaries. It’s also home to several struggling timber mills. As critics rightly point out, logging releases carbon into the atmosphere through accelerated decomposition and combustion. But the effect of this activity on climate change depends on what is done with the wood. The wood harvested from the Tongass is mostly sawlogs, suitable for home construction and specialty items that keep carbon out of the atmosphere for decades.
Southeast Alaskans who depend on the timber industry are suffering. Regional employment in timber has declined to fewer than 400 jobs in 2020, down from over 4,000 in 1990. The back-and-forth volleying of the rules between political administrations particularly hurts investments in Alaskan logging, drilling and mining projects.
The Tongass is only one example. Another is the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed approximately 200 miles southwest of Anchorage that took nearly a decade to receive its final determination from the Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 30. Then there’s the Willow project, a site in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, which was leased in 1999 by the Clinton administration. Oil was found in 2017, but the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management has only recently recommended a scaled-back version of the oil drilling project on Feb. 1, promising a final decision within 30 days. These projects would support more than 2,000 jobs each in Alaska while providing critical mineral and energy resources.
Determining whether a project is safe for the environment shouldn’t take a decade to figure out. But unfortunately, more often than not, that’s what’s happening.
Since 2016 the federal government has averaged over five years to complete environmental-impact surveys nationwide. Proposals to develop Alaska’s natural resources are a particular target of out-of-state media and environmental groups that attack the projects long before the government decides to approve them. Advocacy groups and the general public can register objections to any new project and slow the process with federal litigation. These delays can have unintended consequences: The Antelope fire in 2021 ravaged the habitat of the spotted owl that California environmentalists intended to save.
Environmental regulations should be clearer, stronger and faster to implement. Revising the Roadless Rule with modern scientific understandings would cut red tape not only for the Tongass but for all of America’s national forests. Smart reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act, such as allowing more categorical exclusions for projects with no significant environmental impact and making litigation less disruptive, would make the permitting process more efficient for everyone.
The battle over Alaska’s resources doesn’t help anyone, least of all the Alaskans who live and work in a state that environmentalists would rather treat as a wildlife preserve. Mr. Biden should stop his environmental virtue-signaling and allow domestic resource development.
Ms. Montalbano is the education-policy analyst at Alaska Policy Forum and Northwest regional leader with Young Voices.