Week 144: Trump Wants to Turn Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest Into a Drive-Thru

Plus, David Bernhardt does more favors for his former client, the USDA allegedly suppresses climate research (a whole lot of it), and the president launches perhaps the most hypocritical lawsuit in history.

October 25, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth

Trump Can’t See the Forest for the Logging

The U.S. Forest Service announced on Tuesday its support for lifting the ban on road-building in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Located in southeastern Alaska, the temperate rainforest is a vast, largely intact wilderness that stores more carbon per acre than any other forest on earth. The Trump administration’s move would lead to logging, habitat fragmentation, and potentially oil and gas exploration in the nation’s largest—and one of the world’s most important—rainforests.

The decision is the latest salvo in a long and complicated regulatory saga, and it applies not just to the Tongass but to all federal forests. President Clinton instituted the Roadless Rule in 2001, protecting 58 million acres of national forest in 39 states. The rule ensured that huge swaths of the nation’s forestlands would remain intact and was hailed as one of the most important conservation actions in decades.

Logging and fossil fuel interests, along with a handful of states, vehemently opposed the restrictions, and some of them began suing even before the rule was finalized. The courts dismissed those lawsuits as premature. But the Roadless Rule has been subject to an almost unimaginably complex and confusing series of lawsuits and countersuits ever since. Federal judges have imposed contradictory injunctions, each purporting to cover the entire country. There have been settlements and compromises. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have reconsidered and reviewed the rule.

Viewed from this perspective, President Trump’s attempt to exempt the Tongass National Forest seems like just another bump in the road (sorry). There will be more litigation, and it will probably last for years. Although the Roadless Rule has proved remarkably resilient to date, the Tongass is a special case. Even the Clinton administration considered exempting the forest from the rule, under heavy pressure from Alaskan politicians who saw dollar signs in the trees.

But the Tongass is also ecologically special, even compared with the many other beautiful forests on federal lands. Towering as high as 200 feet, some of the Tongass’s signature evergreens are more than 800 years old. While its carbon-storing powers alone make its protection crucial to the planet’s climate, the 17-million-acre rainforest is also home to brown bears, Sitka deer, bald eagles, vulnerable salmon, and rare wolf subspecies.

There is a long road ahead (sorry). The Trump administration hasn’t yet begun to collect public comments on its stated desire to open the forest up for industry, and the majority of those comments will likely favor saving the Tongass. A recent poll showed that 75 percent of Americans want to keep the rule, and 59 percent believe that exemptions should not be made for individual states. In our deeply divided country, those are overwhelming levels of support. Even if the administration ignores those voices (spoiler alert: It will), its typical failure to provide rational justifications for its decisions will be a problem in court.

Save America’s largest wild forest

Some People Never Learn

Earlier this month, we reported on the U.S. Department of the Interior's decision to reconsider a proposal to enlarge the Shasta Dam—a move that would massively benefit an organization of big California farmers that used to employ Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as a lobbyist. Seemingly unfazed by the ethical implications, the Interior Department announced this week yet another decision to help out that same Big Ag organization, named the Westlands Water District, when it moved to weaken protections for threatened and endangered fish. This will allow huge amounts of water to be diverted from the San Francisco Bay Delta for farm irrigation.

Once again the shamelessness of Bernhardt’s favoritism is shocking. The Interior Department’s internal watchdog is already investigating the secretary for the work he has done to benefit this particular former client. Almost from the moment Bernhardt took the reins in January, he has reportedly lobbied behind the scenes to reduce the volume of river water that must be maintained to sustain the delta smelt and Chinook salmon, which are teetering on the brink of extinction. The Westlands Water District has long wanted access to that water. Some lawmakers say that Bernhardt’s involvement in the decision-making process violates ethics rules that prevent appointees from working on issues that affect recent clients.

Most people take being the subject of an ethics investigation as a signal to lay low for a while. Bernhardt just plows ahead, doubling down on the very behavior that launched the inquiry in the first place.

The Dog Ate My Staff?

But wait, there’s more watchdog news this week. Over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the internal watchdog is probing whether policy changes there were designed to suppress climate change research by the agency’s own scientists. Back in September, Senate Democrats reported that the USDA had failed to publicize more than 1,400 studies relating to climate change, which seems like more than a coincidence.

An internal USDA memo suggests that the agency is struggling to get all of its work done after plans to move hundreds of jobs from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City (still not clear if it’s the part in Kansas or the part in Missouri) led to the resignations of vast numbers of employees. There just aren’t enough people to publicize the climate change research, the argument goes. That’s not very convincing, however, since the agency continues to produce news releases just about every day (as long as they support the president’s political views).

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

The Trump administration escalated its feud with California this week, suing the Golden State over its decision to allow Quebec to participate in its cap-and-trade carbon emissions program. According to the complaint, the arrangement represents an international environmental agreement, and since foreign policy falls within the jurisdiction of the federal government rather than the states, the arrangement is illegal.

You have to laugh at the irony of this situation. The man who is ensnared in a scandal over his alleged delegation of U.S. diplomacy to his personal lawyer, sidelining the State Department in the process, is accusing the government of California of working outside of the normal foreign policy channels.

I hope California’s reply to the lawsuit begins, “Seriously?”

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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