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Alaska's Tongass National Forest

Alaska's Tongass National Forest supports vibrant populations of eagles, grizzlies, wolves and salmon. But an illegal exemption to a landmark rule could allow loggers to clearcut its old-growth trees. Watch this video to see what's at stake.

America's national forest system was created in the early 20th century to preserve pristine wilderness and the wildlife that lives there for all generations. But since then, more than half of the system's forested land has been developed or crisscrossed by roads that disturb its natural beauty and ecosystems.

In 2001, with a dwindling amount of untouched land left, the U.S. Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to save the few remaining expanses of true wildlands from development.

"As the realities of global climate change become ever more apparent, the critical need to preserve these last remaining, intact roadless areas within the national forests could not be more urgent." — Letter from leading scientists in support of the roadless rule

Included on the list was Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which lies at the heart of the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest. With its towering groves of ancient trees, the Tongass supports vibrant populations of eagles, grizzlies, wolves and salmon.

The Tongass is a prime example of what the roadless area rule was meant to protect. Yet today, it remains threatened, thanks to an exemption from the administration of President George W. Bush. And despite its many successes, the roadless rule itself remains under assault, as well. Oil and logging companies have opposed the rule since its creation, leaving the wildlands with an uncertain fate.

Benefits of the Roadless Rule

The roadless rule protects 58.5 million acres of pristine national forest in 39 states from destructive logging, mining and road building. These activities have the potential to destroy old-growth ecosystems, pollute water and increase the risk of forest fires.

Since its creation, the has rule has received overwhelming public support, garnering more than four million public comments -- 95 percent of which have been positive.

The roadless rule has been embraced by the public because it:

Protects Wildlife: Roadless forests are safe havens for fish and other wildlife, including more than 1,600 threatened, endangered or sensitive plant and animal species.

Protects Habitat: In many areas across the United States, wildlife habitat has been fragmented or entirely destroyed because of road building and commercial interests.

Protects Drinking Water: Roadless areas preserve vast expanses of land, which include watersheds that supply drinking water -- unpolluted by development -- for 60 million Americans.

Offers Refuge and Recreation: These quiet, pristine places offer refuge to people as well. Roadless areas are a world apart from the bustling, settled landscapes of our daily lives, and they harbor some of the best fishing, hunting, hiking and camping in the nation.

There's also another reason to support healthy, intact forests: The fight against global warming.

On March 31, 2009, dozens of leading scientists, including luminaries such as E.O. Wilson, sent the Obama administration a letter supporting the roadless rule and stating that healthy, intact forests are better able to absorb carbon dioxide and withstand changing climate conditions brought on by global warming.

Roadless Areas Threatened

But not everyone supports the benefits of protecting our few remaining wildlands. From its first days in office, George W. Bush's administration worked to weaken protections for roadless areas and give developers access to the places that the public wants to preserve.

President Bush illegally exempted the Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule as far back as 2001. After eight years of litigation and political wrangling, in its final days, his administration was able to push through exemptions for large portions of the forest system. They include the Tongass, as well as forests in the state of Idaho and potentially Colorado.

Learn more about the threat to the Tongass and how you can help save it at NRDC's Save BioGems site.

The roadless rule has proven incredibly successful -- only 7 miles of roads have been built in roadless areas since the plan went into effect in 2001. NRDC has urged President Obama's administration to work quickly and restore protection to the areas left open to assault by his predecessor.

last revised 4/14/2009

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