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Eroded protections threaten U.S. forests

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Science  20 Nov 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6519, pp. 921-922
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf5654

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The repeal of a rule prohibiting roads within Alaska's Tongass National Forest has put the temperate rainforest at risk.

PHOTO: YEGOROV/SHUTTERSTOCK

Despite record-breaking mega-fires in 2020 (1), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently removed the 2001 Roadless Rule protection for 9.37 million acres of Tongass National Forest in Alaska (2). The intact and fire-resistant Tongass temperate rainforest is home to valuable biodiversity and functions as an important carbon sink, making it vital in combatting both global extinction risk and climate change (3, 4). In light of catastrophic fires and rapid climate change, the government needs to rigorously and transparently evaluate costs and benefits before repealing any environmental protections.

Ending the rule prohibiting roads in the Tongass exposes 165,000 acres of old-growth rainforest to logging (2) and leaves the remaining rainforest vulnerable to degradation from road-building and potential mining and fossil fuel extraction (5, 6). Industrial expansion has ecological repercussions through increased emissions, diminished carbon sequestration, and reduced fire resistance (6) as well as potential downstream socio-economic effects for local fishery and tourism industries (7). The Roadless Rule repeal was opposed by several local tribes and 96% of the quarter million letters submitted by the public (2, 7). The repeal will also enable an economically unviable timber program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in losses since 1980 (8).

The government's decision to erode protection of Tongass National Park sets a precedent to roll back protections for other remaining intact forests (9) that provide critical carbon storage, protection against species extinction, and refuge against the effects of climate and fire-season intensification (2, 3, 10). Instead of forcing taxpayers to subsidize an ecologically and financially shortsighted initiative, activities such as native reforestation should be implemented. Strategic reforesting, particularly after fires, can provide short- and long-term benefits for the environment, society, and economy by increasing carbon storage (11), reducing erosion, providing habitat for displaced wildlife, and supporting the long-term sustainability of industries like tourism and carbon farming (12). In the face of global climate change and intensifying fire seasons, the U.S. government should be seeking to fortify rather than repeal evidence-based protections in a way that supports ecological, social, and economic objectives.

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