JUNEAU, Alaska – The federal government on Wednesday announced plans to lift restrictions on logging and road construction in a pristine rainforest in Alaska that provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon. Conservation groups have vowed to fight the decision.

The US Department of Agriculture has said it has decided to exempt Tongass National Forest, the country’s largest national forest, from the so-called no-road rule, protections that prohibit road building and harvesting of wood with limited exceptions. It applies to almost a quarter of all land in the US Forest Service.

The rule, dating from 2001, has long been the subject of litigation.

Alaska in 2018, under the government of the day. Bill Walker, has called on the federal government to consider the exemption, a move supported by current Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Members of the Alaska Congressional delegation also pushed for the exemption.

About 9.4 million of Tongass’s 16.7 million acres are considered road-free areas, according to the Forest Service, which falls under the USDA. That number differs slightly from the 9.2 million acres cited by the agency in its draft environmental review last fall. The majority of Tongass is in a natural state, and the forest is one of the largest relatively intact temperate rainforests in the world, the agency said.

Most of the areas without roads are wildlife habitats, ecosystems and natural areas such as ancient temperate humid tropical forests, ice fields and glaciers, and islands facing the open Pacific Ocean “that do not exist anywhere. part elsewhere in the national forest system, “according to the Forest Service.

The USDA, in a notice released on Wednesday, said it had concluded that a policy change for Tongass “can be made without major negative impacts on the leisure, tourism and fishing industries, while still providing benefits to the timber and mining industries, increasing opportunities for community infrastructure and eliminating unnecessary regulations.

In a separate statement, the USDA said the exemption itself does not allow specific work and that proposed projects must always comply with the forest management plan and are subject to a federal environmental review.

US Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said on social media that a total exemption from the road traffic rule is for access to “recreation, renewable energy and more, while ensuring good management of our lands and waters “.

Conservation groups criticized the move as short-sighted and politically motivated.

“The decision to rescind the Tongass highway traffic rule was made despite, not in favor of, the people of Southeast Alaska and our communities,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “By making this decision, the Trump administration and the bogus rule-making process they have undertaken in our region have ignored economic realities, environmental imperatives and, worse yet, the will of the people who actually live here. “

Randi Spivak, director of public lands at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the century-old trees in the forest giants.

“As sure as the sun rises in the east, together with our allies, we will sue to keep these magnificent giants standing for centuries to come,” Spivak said.

An official notice of the change to Tongass is expected to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday.

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