Tongrass National Forest Glacier

USDA Reinstates Protections for Tongass National Forest

In a move widely praised by outdoor recreation advocacy groups, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has finalized the reinstatement of protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.

The final rule repeals the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule and restores longstanding roadless protections to 9.37 million acres of roadless areas, a move designed to protect the area from extractive industries such as logging and mining.

Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States, offering a unique wilderness experience for overlanding and off-roading enthusiasts. With its expansive landscapes and rugged terrain, Tongass provides opportunities for adventure and exploration on dirt roads, trails, and remote beaches. An overlanding trip to Alaska is on the bucket list of many of people with a passion for vehicle-based adventure.

While the term “roadless rule” sounds antithetical to vehicle-based adventure travel – what we focused on here on Ordealist – protecting this pristine wilderness from industrial exploitation strikes me as a good thing. Tongass already has a wide network of forest service roads and off-road trails and it’s unclear if they would be impacted by the new rule. I reached out to USDA for clarification on this point.

Wade Muehlhof, a spokesman for the National Forest Service, told me that the restoration of the Roadless Rule in Tongass will impact the construction of new roads, but existing roads and trails will remain open for recreational use.

He noted that Forest Service will continue to issue Motorized Vehicle Use Maps for the park, which are an important resource for finding overlanding routes and off-road trails. While the Roadless Rule generally prohibits timber harvest and the construction or reconstruction of roads in inventoried roadless areas of the National Forest System, he added, there are certain exceptions, with roads important to recreation being one of them.

Tongass National Forest map
The first page of a Tongass National Forest motorized vehicle map.

Outdoor recreation advocacy groups have applauded the reinstatement of protections for Tongass. Adam Cramer, CEO of Outdoor Alliance, an outdoor advocacy group said, “The Tongass National Forest is a critical landscape for recreation opportunities, fighting climate change, protecting biodiversity, and its significance to local Tribes. We are thrilled and relieved to see today’s announcement and grateful for the administration’s commitment to conservation.”

The Tongass has been the center of a controversial issue for many years. In 2020, the Trump administration removed protections for half of the Tongass’ 17 million acres. The Roadless Rule was designed to protect millions of acres of National Forests from logging, road-building, and development, but this decision put it at risk.

The Biden administration took action to reverse this decision by directing agencies to review the actions of the previous administration, including the decision to strip protections from the Tongass. Following a public comment period, where outdoor enthusiasts sent more than 24,000 messages in support of restoring protections, the Biden administration announced plans to reinstate Roadless protections in the Tongass last summer.

The Tongass is not only important to Alaska Natives, who have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years, but it is also critical to the environment. The Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, capturing 44 percent of all the carbon stored by National Forests in the US. This makes it a crucial component in combating climate change and achieving the goal of protecting 30 percent of our land and water by 2030. In addition, the Tongass is a popular destination for outdoor recreation, including mountaineering and sea kayaking.

Southeast Alaska Tribal leaders expressed their support for reinstating the Roadless Rule, highlighting the significance of the Tongass to Indigenous communities, who rely on the forest for traditional teachings, foods, and medicines. The restoration of protections for the Tongass National Forest is a major win for outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists, and all those who value the importance of preserving our natural heritage for future generations.

Top photo: LeConte Glacier in Stikine-LeConte Wilderness, part of Tongass National Forest. Courtesy National Forest Service.

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