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When the King Becomes a Pawn: The Saga of the Tongass National Forest and the Roadless Rule

Kelsey Shaw


  • Analyzes the modern back and forth of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2001 Roadless Rule.
  • Delves into the growth of outdoor recreation opportunities for the communities around the Tongass.
  • Discusses how the Biden administration’s repeal of the Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule has protected millions of acres of rainforest.
When the King Becomes a Pawn: The Saga of the Tongass National Forest and the Roadless Rule
Toshiro Shimada via Getty Images

The Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. It covers almost 17 million acres of Southeast Alaska, including approximately 9.3 million acres of inventoried roadless area. The vast old-growth forests and near-pristine watersheds provide critical habitat to a host of protected species, such as bald eagles and salmon. The largely intact stands of old growth also make Tongass the “national carbon champion representing [approximately] 44% of the entire ecosystem carbon of the entire national forest system.” All things considered, the Tongass is king of the national forests. 

On January 25, 2023, the Tongass made headlines when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) repealed the Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule. Special Areas; Roadless Area Conservation; National Forest System Lands in Alaska, 88 Fed. Reg. 5252 (Jan. 27, 2023) (to be codified at 36 C.F.R. § 294). Former President Trump’s Alaska Roadless Rule had exempted Alaska from existing roadless area restrictions, opening these areas up to road construction and timber harvesting. Id. President Biden’s repeal of the Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule is but the latest in a series of repeals and reinstatements that have beleaguered the Tongass since the promulgation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (2001 Roadless Rule) over two decades ago. See 88 Fed. Reg. at 5253 (providing the procedural background for the Roadless Rule). At its most basic, the contentious back and forth reflects the polarized politics of the United States, with one side advocating for state autonomy and the other for federal oversight and direction. More specifically, it highlights the ongoing tension caused by national and global economies shifting away from certain natural resources, such as timber or coal, and consequently leaving rural communities with crumbling local economies. See, e.g., Leah Todd, Why Save the Small Town?, High Country News, Oct. 16, 2017. Given this inevitable shift, it is crucial that these communities pivot away from extractive economies and towards new economic drivers. For the communities in and around the Tongass National Forest, preservation of roadless areas has helped the outdoor recreation industry to become one such driver.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted the 2001 Roadless Rule “to protect and conserve roadless areas on National Forest System lands.” Special Areas; Roadless Area Conservation, 66 Fed. Reg. 3244, 3244 (Jan. 12, 2001) (codified at 36 C.F.R. §§ 294.10–294.14). The rule restricts the construction and reconstruction of roads and the harvesting of timber in inventoried roadless areas, which the USFS had previously identified through surveys of national forest lands. Id. at 3246. The purpose of protecting these areas was to preserve the remaining pockets of relatively undisturbed forest land that “provide clean drinking water and function as biological strongholds for populations of threatened and endangered species.” Id. at 3245. From the outset, USDA recognized the unique importance of the Tongass—of its almost 17 million acres, just over 9 million are inventoried roadless areas, much of which is old growth temperate rainforest. Implementing the rule would eliminate approximately 95 percent of the planned timber harvest in the national forest. 66 Fed. Reg. at 3254. USDA thus specifically analyzed the potential impacts of either making Alaska exempt from the rule entirely, delaying implementation in the Tongass, or selectively implementing the rule in specific areas. Id. at 3262–63.

Although recognizing the potentially significant impact of the rule on local economies, USDA feared that exempting Alaska altogether would risk the loss of the Tongass’ vital watersheds, diverse plant and animal communities, traditional cultural sites, and dispersed recreation opportunities. Id. at 3245, 3266. Ultimately, USDA decided to implement the rule in the Tongass but with several modification for existing mineral and timber contracts and those in areas degraded by resource extraction since the original roadless area inventory surveys. Id. at 3266. Though the majority of commenters on the proposed rule supported this protection, the timber industry and local politicians bristled at what they saw as federal overreach. 66 Fed. Reg. at 3248; 88 Fed. Reg. at 5253. Ever since, presidential administrations have used the Tongass and the application of the Roadless Rule to signal their position on environmental issues and state autonomy, among others disputes.

While the 2001 Roadless Rule and a subsequent attempt by the Bush administration to repeal it were being challenged in court, life for communities around the Tongass continued and local economies adapted. Industries that derive their value from an intact and pristine forest ecosystem, such as outdoor recreation, grew and benefited from the protections imposed by the 2001 Roadless Rule. This growth was not unforeseen by USDA—in the proposal for the final rule, the department identified the importance of inventoried roadless areas for the “outstanding dispersed outdoor recreation [opportunities they provide], opportunities that diminish as open space and natural settings are developed elsewhere.” 66 Fed. Reg. at 3245. USDA also identified the areas’ ability to alleviate the pressure on heavily used wilderness areas. Id. Because these areas tend to share the treasured characteristics of wilderness areas­—large, quiet, and relatively untouched swaths of nature—but without the same restrictions, roadless areas appeal to recreationists who are generally barred from wilderness areas, such as mountain bikers. Id. Now, over 20 years since its adoption, the 2001 Roadless Rule protects some of the most valued backcountry recreation areas across the country.

Increasing outdoor recreation opportunities in the Tongass bolster the economies of local communities. While it is difficult to calculate precise visitor data for the Tongass because “[r]ecreation resources and activities in the region are dispersed over large areas with low average use per acre with almost infinite entry points via saltwater boat and airplane access[,]” researchers have found that “business interviews can provide low-cost and fairly comprehensive estimates of total revenue from nature based tourism activities occurring on or near the Tongass.” Between 2005 and 2007, these researchers estimated that “nature-based tourism [in Southeast Alaska] generate[d] about $277 million per year of direct business revenues.” Given the ever-growing outdoor recreation industry, it is fair to assume that these numbers have continued to grow since researchers collected this data. In a report released in the fall of 2022, the Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated that the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 1.9 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product, or $454 billion, and saw three times the growth of the overall U.S. economy. Driving this growth were the approximately 164.2 million Americans who recreated outdoors at least over the course of the year. The significance of preserving areas that draw outdoor recreation participants is apparent, particularly for rural communities that may not see many visitors otherwise.

The 2001 Roadless Rule protected millions of acres of the world’s largest remaining intact old-growth temperate rainforest in Tongass National Forest. President Biden’s recent repeal of the Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule, which rescinded those protections, evoked joy and relief from many in Alaska’s outdoor recreation industry. As one small business owner proclaimed:

I am ecstatic that the Forest Service is fully reinstating the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest[.] It is time for us to focus on recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike. The visitor industry is huge to the Southeast Alaska economy. Visitors travel from every corner of the planet to explore the rare environment and wildlife that is the Tongass National Forest. Happy Day!

By ensuring that the Tongass’ roadless areas remain closed to new road construction and timber harvests, the Biden administration has protected millions of acres of pristine backcountry that support a flourishing local recreation economy.