Biden moves to protect the Tongass, North America’s largest rainforest, from logging and road building


View of Hobart Bay off Stephens Passage in Tongass National Forest, southeastern Alaska.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Beverly Law, Oregon State UniversityAsk people to find the world’s rainforests on a globe, and most will probably point to South America. But North America has rainforests too – and like their tropical counterparts, these temperate rainforests are ecological treasures.

The Biden administration recently announced new policies to protect the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world and the biggest U.S. national forest. It spreads over more than 26,000 square miles (67,340 square kilometers) – roughly the size of West Virginia – and covers most of southeast Alaska. The Tongass has thousands of watersheds and fjords, and more than a thousand forested islands.

Map overlaying Alaska on the continental U.S.
Alaska’s national forests, the Chugach and the Tongass, compared with the lower 48 states.
USFS

For over 20 years the Tongass has been at the center of political battles over two key conservation issues: old-growth logging and designating large forest zones as roadless areas to prevent development. As a scientist specializing in forest ecosystems, I see protecting the Tongass as the kind of bold action that’s needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

An ecological gem

The Tongass as we know it today began forming at the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-1700s, which left much of what is now southern Alaska as barren land. Gradually, the area repopulated with plants and animals to become a swath of diverse, rich old-growth forests. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Tongass as a forest reserve in 1902, and then as a national forest in 1907.

The Tongass is the traditional homeland of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. It is named for the Tongass group of the Tlingit people, who have continuously occupied the area for over 10,000 years. Alaska Natives relied on the forest’s rich diversity of plants and animals for their survival and traditions. Today the Tongass has abundant populations of animals that have become uncommon in other parts of the U.S., such as brown bears and wolves.

Most of the 900 watersheds within the Tongass are in near-natural condition. This ensures that they can provide habitat for many wild species and recover from or adapt to stresses, such as warmer temperatures due to climate change. They support salmon that spawn in the forest’s creeks and rivers, providing food for bears, eagles and other predators. Such ecosystems are incredibly rare around the world today.

The Tongass National Forest is home to bears, bald eagles and five species of salmon.

How roads threaten forests

Intact old-growth forests, with trees hundreds of years old, are essential for carbon storage, biodiversity and climate resilience. They have fully developed root systems that can reach water in deep soils, and are more resistant than young forests to drought, fire, insects and strong winds – effects that are all likely to increase with climate change.

Because old-growth forests have accumulated massive amounts of carbon in their trees and soils over centuries, protecting them is an important strategy for curbing climate change. Today, however, scientists estimate that logging, agriculture and urban development have left only 6% to 14% of the forest area in the U.S. intact. And only 7% of total U.S. forest area is more than a century old.

Old-growth logging is controversial because intact forests are so rare. And forest losses often start when roads are cut through them to access timber. The roads are effectively long clear-cuts across the landscape.

Building roads through moist temperate forests can make it easier for warm air, wind and sunlight to penetrate from the edges to the interior, drying soil, mosses and ferns. It also provides entry points for invasive plants carried in by vehicles.

And roads’ negative effects extend beyond the actual driving surface. A road 30 feet (9 meters) wide may influence an additional 80 to 100 feet (25 to 30 meters) of adjacent land because of land disturbance during construction and wide buffer zones created for vehicle safety.

Road building can harm animals like brown bears through collisions with vehicles and increased poaching and trapping. In the Tongass, a strip a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) wide on each side of the highway system is closed to big game hunting, but this can mitigate only some of roads’ pervasive effects.

Bulldozers grade land next to a gravel logging road.
Upgrading a logging road into State Highway 43 on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest.
Jack Olen, USFS Alaska Region/Flickr, CC BY

Decades of controversy

In its final days in January 2001, the Clinton administration adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which barred logging, timber sales, mining and road construction within inventoried roadless areas in most national forests across the U.S. About 9.2 million acres (37,231 square kilometers) of the Tongass – more than half of its area – were designated and managed as inventoried roadless areas.

This step launched 20 years of debate and litigation. The Bush and Trump administrations, supported by conservative Western state officials, sought to limit the roadless rule and exempt the Tongass from it. The Obama administration generally supported the rule and defended it in court.

In 2020, the Trump administration opened the Tongass to extensive new logging, mining and road construction activities. Critics, including environmental advocates and tribal governments, argued that Alaska’s economy was better served by outdoor recreation and commercial fishing than by clear-cutting its remaining old-growth forests.

Now the Biden administration has restored protection for roadless areas of the Tongass. It also has pledged to end large-scale old-growth timber sales and focus on restoration, recreation and other noncommercial activities. It will permit old-growth logging only for cultural uses, such as totem poles and canoes, and for small sales that serve community needs. It also proposes a US$25 million investment in sustainable economic opportunities, with particular focus on investments that are responsive to Indigenous needs.

Forest advocates have welcomed this action and the administration’s plan to publish a new version of the roadless rule. But it remains to be seen how permanent this shift will be.

A strategic climate reserve

New hope for protecting the Tongass comes amid growing alarm over two converging environmental crises: climate change and accelerated extinctions of plant and animal species. In my view, protecting ecological treasures like the Tongass is a critical way to address both issues at once, as scientists have recommended.

The southeastern and south-central regions of Alaska, which contain the Tongass and Chugach national forests, store about 1 billion metric tons of carbon in live and dead tree biomass. This amount could increase by 27% by 2100 if the forest is allowed to continue to grow and accumulate carbon.

I believe the Tongass’ vast intactness, rich biodiversity and significant carbon storage make it an excellent choice as the first of a series of strategic climate reserves – areas that scientists have proposed setting aside to protect large carbon sinks and biodiversity of plant and animal species. U.S. old-growth forests are disappearing rapidly, but with smart management they can deliver ecological benefits for decades to come.

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Beverly Law, Professor Emeritus of Global Change Biology and Terrestrial Systems Science, Oregon State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Giant sea bass are thriving in Mexican waters – scientific research that found them to be critically endangered stopped at the US-Mexico border


Giant sea bass are listed as a critically endangered species.
Maru Brito, CC BY-ND

Arturo Ramírez-Valdez, University of California San DiegoI was looking at the seafloor, focused on identifying fish species as I normally did when diving off of the California coast, when suddenly I felt something large above me. When I turned my head I saw a giant fish – more than 6 feet (2 meters) long – calmly interested in the air bubbles coming from my SCUBA regulator. This was 2016 and was my first encounter with a giant sea bass.

I am a marine ecologist, and I study how international borders pose challenges for conservation and management efforts in the marine environment. Although there are no walls or fences in the ocean, borders still act as stark barriers for a variety of things.

Giant sea bass live off the west coast of North America in both Mexican and U.S. waters. I have found that large differences in regulation and research effort between the two countries has led to a significant misunderstanding of giant sea bass population health.

A map showing high density of giant sea bass along the west coast of the U.S. and along both sides of the Baja Peninsula.
Giant sea bass live in coastal waters from northern California all the way south to the Sea of Cortez.
Arturo Ramiréz-Valdez, CC BY-ND

Different countries, different science

The giant sea bass is the largest coastal bony fish in the Northeastern Pacific. It can grow up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) long and weigh up to 700 pounds (315 kg). It lives in coastal waters from northern California to the tip of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico, including the entire Gulf of California.

In California, commercial fishing for the species began in the late 1880s. Large fish used to be very abundant across the entire range, but the fishery collapsed in the early 1970s. As a response, in 1981 the U.S. banned both commercial and recreational fishing for giant sea bass, and there are many ongoing research and population recovery efforts today.

The collapse and subsequent protection and flurry of research in the U.S. stand in stark contrast to Mexico. In Mexico, there are minimal regulations on fishing for the species, and there is almost a complete lack of data and research on it – there are only three studies on giant sea bass with any data from Mexico.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers giant sea bass to be a critically endangered species due to the population being “severely fragmented, leading to a continuing decline of mature individuals.” But this decision was based on a report that had no data whatsoever from Mexico. This lack of data is concerning, considering 73% of the species’ range is in Mexican waters.

This knowledge gap made me wonder if ecologists had the wrong idea about the health of giant sea bass populations.

A man standing behind a very large black fish on a scale.
Giant sea bass are a common sight at fish markets throughout Baja.
Proyecto Mero Gigante, CC BY-ND

Healthy fish in Mexico

In 2017, I led an effort to document the giant sea bass population in Mexico and look for clues to what it was in the past. At the beginning of the project, my colleagues and I feared that the records in Mexico would confirm the precarious situation of the fish in the U.S. But the reality turned out to be the opposite.

A man in orange overalls on a small blue boat sitting behind four large black fish on the deck.
Commercial fishers don’t often target giant sea bass, but catch them as bycatch when fishing for other species.
Proyecto Mero Gigante, CC BY-ND

To our surprise, we found giant sea bass everywhere in the fish markets and fishing grounds from our very first assessments. The fishmongers were never out of the fish; instead, they would ask us, “How many kilos do you need?” It was clear that for fishers in Mexico, the species is still common in the sea, and therefore, in their nets. It is still possible to find big fish up to 450 pounds 200 kilograms, and the average catch was around 26 pounds (12 kilograms).

It was fantastic to see an abundance of these fish in markets, but I also wanted to understand the fishery trends through history and how current fishing levels compared to previous years. I looked at historical and contemporary fishing records and found that the Mexican commercial fleet has caught an average of 55 tons per year over the past 60 years, and the fishery has been relatively stable over the past 20 years, with a peak in 2015 at 112 tons.

According to U.S. and Mexican records, the largest yearly catch ever recorded for giant sea bass in Mexico was 386 tons in 1933. Biologists consider a fishery to have collapsed when total catches, under the same effort, are less than 10% of the largest catches on record. So a steady trend of 55 tons per year shows that the fishery in Mexico has not collapsed. It is clear that giant sea bass populations have faced severe declines throughout their range; however, the health of the species is not as dire as thought.

Another interesting finding from my research is that the apparent collapse of the giant sea bass fishery documented in the 1970s actually began as early as 1932.

Over the first half of the 20th century, as the U.S. commercial fleet overfished U.S. waters, they began fishing in Mexican waters too – but they continued to count all catches as from the U.S. This changed in 1968 when the two governments signed the Mexico–U.S. Fisheries Agreement, limiting how much fish each country’s fleet could take from the other country’s waters. The collapse of the U.S. fishery in the 1970s was not due to a drastic reduction in fish numbers in Mexican waters, but driven by changes in fishing regulation between the U.S. and Mexico. The California fish populations had been depressed for decades, but this was hidden by fish from Mexico.

A large dark fish swimming in a kelp forest and surrounded by smaller fish.
Giant sea bass populations in Mexico have declined, but are still much healthier than researchers thought.
Meru Brito, CC BY-ND

Better data, better management

Based on my research, I believe that the giant sea bass may not qualify as a critically endangered species. My analysis of modern catch data suggests that the population of this iconic fish is likely much larger than biologists previously thought, especially in Mexico.

I am leading the next assessment for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and now that we have accumulated better data, we can make a more informed decision that balances responsible management of the species with human needs.

I hope that our study inspires policymakers in the U.S. and Baja to start a conversation about how to manage this incredible fish in a collaborative way. But I feel our work also has larger implications. It shows how asymmetry in research and data can create significant barriers to understanding the past and present status of a species like the giant sea bass and make it harder to implement sustainable practices for the future.

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Arturo Ramírez-Valdez, Researcher, University of California San Diego

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here are 5 new species of Australian trapdoor spider. It took scientists a century to tell them apart


A female Euoplos variabilis from Mount Tamborine.
Jeremy Wilson

Mark Harvey, The University of Western AustraliaAfter a century of scientific confusion, we can now officially add five new species to Australia’s long list of trapdoor spiders — secretive, burrowing relatives of tarantulas.

It all started in 1918, when a species known as Euoplos variabilis, was first described. Since then, this species has been considered widespread throughout south-eastern Queensland.

However, in new research, fellow arachnologists from the Queensland Museum studied the physical appearance and DNA of these trapdoor spiders. They revealed this “widespread” species is actually several.

Many trapdoor spider species are short-range endemics, meaning they only occur in one small area. This makes them especially vulnerable to threats such as habitat destruction and degradation, which is why the discovery and description of these new species from Queensland is so important — they can now be protected from future threats.

Meet Australia’s trapdoor spiders

To many people, Australia’s spider diversity is a source of fear. To arachnologists like myself, it’s a goldmine.

Weird and wonderful new species are everywhere. While new discoveries are relatively common, it’s likely most Australian spider species are still yet to be named by science.

The crenate burrow of Euoplos crenatus, a recently discovered ‘palisade trapdoor spider’.
Michael Rix

Trapdoor spiders live in burrows that usually have a hinged door at the entrance that the spider constructs using silk, soil or other material from the surrounding area. Their burrows can be camouflaged, but to a trained eye they’re easily found on the soil embankments beside walking tracks in eastern Australian rainforests.

In the past few years, I’ve been part of a team studying the spiny trapdoor spiders — a group of relatively large (up to about seven centimetres long, including legs) but highly secretive spiders found throughout Australia. They belong to an ancient group called the Mygalomorphae that, alongside tarantulas, includes the infamous Australian funnel-web spiders.

Australian spiders of the group called the Mygalomorphae: left, a funnel-web spider; middle, a wishbone spider; right, a tree trapdoor spider.
Jeremy Wilson

Like other trapdoor spiders, adult male and female spiny trapdoor spiders look shockingly different. When males reach adulthood, their physical appearance changes: their legs get longer and thinner, and their first appendages (called “pedipalps”) develop into structures used for mating. In contrast, adult females remain short-legged and robust.

Male trapdoor spiders undergo this dramatic change because as adults they must leave their burrow and search for females to breed.

Their long legs presumably help them run faster and further in search of females, and also allow them to keep the vulnerable parts of their body out of harm’s way once they meet the (usually larger) female, who isn’t always happy to see them.

The mystery of the trapdoor spider from Mount Tamborine

This striking differences in appearance between male and female spiny trapdoor spiders (“sexual dimorphism”) was at the heart of the mystery regarding the true identity of Euoplos variabilis.

A male and female of the same species of trapdoor spider, showing the sleek, long-legged male and the robust female.
Jeremy Wilson

When the species was first described in 1918, it was based only on female spiders, which were red-brown, large and lived in the rainforest of Mount Tamborine, just south of Brisbane.

In 1985, a male spider, also from Mount Tamborine, was finally linked to the original females. Matching male and female trapdoor spiders of the same species can be difficult because they look so different.

This all changed when the Queensland Museum team began researching the spiny trapdoor spiders of eastern Australia in 2015. When they looked in the museum’s natural history collection, it seemed like males of the Mount Tamborine trapdoor spider were widespread, spanning Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast.




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But strangely, they found females from different locations looked different.

While females from the Mount Tamborine rainforest were large and red-brown, those from the lowlands of north Brisbane were small and tan. And in the rainforest of the D’Aguilar Range, north of Brisbane, the females were even bigger, with a bright orange carapace and red legs.

Could these really all be the same species?

One of the males originally thought to be Euoplos variabilis. It was later realised these males belong to an entirely different species, now called Cryptoforis hughesae.
Michael Rix

This mystery was solved in two steps

First, in 2018, the museum’s arachnologists discovered the seemingly widespread males were actually members of a completely different group of trapdoor spiders, which also occurs in eastern Australia. In other words, there had been a male/female mismatch!

Then, by collecting fresh trapdoor spiders around south-east Queensland and studying their DNA, they discovered the Mount Tamborine trapdoor spider actually doesn’t occur in Brisbane at all. In fact, it’s found only in the mountain ranges bordering New South Wales, with Mount Tamborine being its the most northerly location.

Surprisingly, the female spiders found in Brisbane, the D’Aguilar range, and in various other areas, turned out to be several completely different species, new to science.




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These species can be distinguished by subtle differences in size and colour, and by differences in their DNA. The different species seem to be adapted to different habitats, at different elevations.

So, alongside Euoplos variabilis, the original Mount Tamborine trapdoor spider, the new confirmed species are:

  • Euoplos raveni and Euoplos schmidti, both from the lowland forests of the Brisbane Valley, south of the Brisbane River
  • Euoplos regalis from the upland rainforest of the D’Aguilar Range
  • Euoplos jayneae from the the lowland forests of the Sunshine Coast hinterlands
  • Euoplos booloumba from the upland rainforest of the Conondales Range

These five new species put the total number of known spiny trapdoor spider species to 258.

Don’t be alarmed, bites from a trapdoor spider aren’t dangerous to humans.
Shutterstock

What happens now?

And so, the mystery was solved. Another small fraction of Australia’s beautiful biodiversity is known to science and can be preserved. But the story isn’t over just yet.

To properly conserve these species, we need to understand more about how they live. This is why the research team and I are undertaking a long-term study on one of these new species, Euoplos grandis from the Darling Downs. We hope to learn the intricacies of their lives and to track whether populations are declining from threats such as habitat destruction.




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We’re also continuing our mission to discover and describe new species of trapdoor spider, not just from Queensland, but from all around Australia.

The story of the Mount Tamborine trapdoor spider exemplifies the type of detective work Australian scientists undertake on all types of animal groups. But when it comes to invertebrates, we’ve barely scratched the surface, with new species of bugs, spiders, worms and more waiting to be discovered.

Working on discovering these invertebrates comes with a sense of urgency. These species need a name and formal protection, before it’s too late.

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Jeremy Wilson and Michael Rix from Queensland Museum were co-authors on this articleThe Conversation

Mark Harvey, Curator of Arachnology at the Western Australian Museum, Adjunct Professor, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.