Biden plans to reverse Trump’s Alaska policy. Here’s why it matters.

“the Biden administration revealed plans to reinstate environmental protections preventing logging and mining in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which the Trump administration had discarded. The 17 million acres in southeastern Alaska — the largest national forest in the US — have been a political battleground for over two decades, bouncing back and forth between the interests of logging industries and climate activists.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton finalized the “roadless rule,” which prohibited road construction on 60 million acres of forested land across the US and heavily restricted commercial logging and mining. But in October of 2020, then-President Donald Trump reversed these protections when he made the Tongass Forest exempt from the rule, doing what many developers and politicians in Alaska had been calling for since the Clinton era.”

“While politicians paint a picture of an oppressive federal government that would deny normal Alaskans access to “jobs and prosperity,” the narrative rings a bit hollow when set against actual feedback from the public. In 2019, the US Forest Service released a summary of over 140,000 comments on the “roadless rule” from the public which overwhelmingly supported the restrictions on forest development. In fact, one of the main points of rationale as to why the public thinks the “roadless rule” should remain was that it is vital to the tourism and fishing industries.”

“In addition to providing jobs, as the United States’ largest national forest, the Tongass plays a significant ecological role in absorbing carbon produced in the US. According to National Geographic, the temperate rainforest absorbs approximately 8 percent of the pollution produced in the US. “While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, told the Washington Post. In fact, the United States Geological Survey recently estimated that if no trees were lost through logging and the land were left unmanaged in the Tongass, its carbon storage could increase by up to 27 percent by the end of the century.

The Tongass is also home to a thriving wildlife population, but Trump’s reversal of the “roadless rule” put this in danger. On land, the state of Alaska is home to 95 percent of America’s brown bear population, and the Tongass specifically contains the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet, while the forest’s 17,000 miles of clean freshwater provide optimal spawning conditions for wild salmon. Due to its high populations, the Tongass is sometimes called a “salmon forest” and, as it produces $60 million of wild salmon annually, this name is not far-fetched. But, if not for the “roadless rule,” this might have changed. Logging around a stream causes runoff like silt or dirt into the water, which can smother developing eggs, while dams, often used to maneuver logs down waterways, disorient the fish and disrupt their natural migratory patterns”

“While this is a loss that can affect any Alaskan, to Alaskan Natives, losing wild salmon and the forests that house them means much more than a declining food source. Twenty-three percent of the region’s population comes from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, who have been fighting for recognition and for better treatment of their ancestral land which includes the expansive Tongass Forest.”

“Our culture is not up for sale”: The stakes of Trump’s push to drill in the Arctic refuge

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of public land in Alaska the size of South Carolina, is one of the last untouched landscapes in the world. The native Gwich’in people — who have lived in harmony with the area’s migratory Porcupine caribou herd for centuries — call the refuge’s vast coastal plain Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

But in the past few years, the fate of the refuge’s roughly 19.5 million acres has become rather bleak: Its permafrost is melting rapidly, along with the rest of the Arctic region. The refuge’s coastal plain also remains at risk to oil and gas development, which companies have long had their eye on but have been barred from doing — until now.

Drilling in the US Arctic is what President Trump has longed to do, in hopes of making the US the No. 1 energy producer in the world. And in early December, the administration made a stunning, last-ditch announcement that it will auction off drilling rights in the refuge on January 6 — two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. It’s the administration’s final attempt to turn a profit on Indigenous lands with little regard for the environmental or cultural ramifications.”

“For centuries, the Arctic refuge — particularly the coastal plain — has been central to Alaska Natives’ way of life. The ancestral name of the plain refers to the calving grounds for the caribou, whose migratory path still guides the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people today. If oil drilling rights in the sacred land are sold, Alaskan Natives fear it would disrupt the caribou’s migratory patterns along with other wildlife. It would also interrupt the way the Gwich’in people prepare for sacred harvest as their ancestors have thousands of years ago.

“This is not just a Gwich’in issue; there are a lot of Alaska Natives who depend on the caribou and the animals that migrate there,” Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Vox. “Our identity as Gwich’in is not up for negotiation and our culture is not up for sale. We will fight this every step of the way.”

Already, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline on the west end of the national refuge, which has had multiple hazardous oil spills in the region, provides a stark reminder of the fossil fuel industry’s menacing presence on Indigenous lands. Fossil fuel operations emit tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to the planet’s warming temperatures. And to do so on Indigenous lands in the Arctic — already dubbed ground zero for the climate crisis — only adds insult to injury for communities most vulnerable to climate change, like the Gwich’in people.”