Alaska sues US government to contest Tongass forest protections

By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) - The state of Alaska sued President Joe Biden's administration on Friday seeking to block its decision to reverse a policy begun under his predecessor Donald Trump that had opened vast swaths of the Tongass National Forest, the largest such wilderness in the United States, to logging and mining.

The state's lawsuit, filed in federal court in Anchorage, said the January decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to restore protections for 9.37 million acres (3.76 million hectares) of the southeastern Alaska forest undermines the state's economy by prohibiting timber harvests and mining for essential minerals.

The state's lawsuit said the USDA decision was made without properly explaining its reasoning, in violation of federal law. The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alaska said the protections reduce state tax revenues, increase the need for state expenditures on remote communities near the forest and prevent economic development.

The USDA's decision meant the land was once again subject to its 2001 Roadless Rule, which prohibits road construction and timber harvesting on protected and undeveloped areas of U.S. forests. The department said then that restoring the protections was necessary to combat climate change, since the forest absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide that fuels global warming.

The protections had been revoked for much of the Tongass in 2020 as a part of the Trump administration's agenda to roll back environmental regulations seen as roadblocks to industry.

The state's lawsuit on Friday also said the decision violated the Alaska Statehood Act, which transferred a large amount of federal land to the state in order to help it become economically self-supporting, and other laws. Alaska asked the court for an order invalidating the repeal, and blocking the administration from applying the Roadless Rule to the Tongass.

The administration's action on Tongass was not the only one it has taken concerning Alaska wilderness.

The U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday said it would cancel oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that were bought by an Alaska state development agency in the final days of the Republican Trump's presidency. Biden, a Democrat, has pledged to protect the 19.6 million-acre (7.9 million-hectare) refuge for polar bears and caribou.

(Reporting by Clark Mindock in New York; Editing by Will Dunham and Alexia Garamfalvi)