Saving the Tongass National Forest

Although it often feels like environmentalists are purveyors of catastrophe, stories of saving precious wilderness abound. One of these is Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, “the largest relatively intact rainforest in North America,” which “makes up about 14 percent of the global temperate rainforest” according to Dru J. Fenster, Public Affairs Specialist for the Alaska Forest Service.

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A Brown “Grizzly” Bear at Anan Creek, Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Credit: USFS.

The Tongass’ 16.8 million acres are home to Sitka black deer, Archipelago wolves, moose, goshawks, martins, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, and all five species of Pacific Salmon, among a multitude of species. Located on the Gulf of Alaska, replete with inlets and lakes, and visited by whales and porpoises, the area is notable for some 20,000 islands as well as glaciers and ice fields. Yet the Tongass has been threatened by clear cutting, made possible by the incursion of logging roads, harming both land and water.

Tongass: Supreme Court’s Pet

Fortunately, the Tongass National Forest has recently been handed protection by the Supreme Court. The problem began with a 2003 Bush administration decision to exempt Tongass from the roadless rule that protects our great natural treasures. This rule prohibits “road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest in inventoried roadless areas because they have the greatest likelihood of altering and fragmenting landscapes,” says Fenster.

This decision to suspend this important rule was “supposed to be temporary, but became de facto,” says Alaska resident Tom Waldo, Senior Staff Attorney for Earthjustice. The largest and most pristine of our great national forests was open to destruction, piece by piece.

In 2009, Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Organized Village of Kake, among others, sued to protect the Tongass from more road building. In December 2014 the Ninth Circuit agreed.

The threat wasn’t over, however, as the State of Alaska fought to overturn the ruling and allow more logging roads to penetrate the Tongass. On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, putting an end to threatened incursions into this grand wilderness area.

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Aerial view of Tongass National Forest. Credit: Alan Wu, FlickrCC.

The roadless rule protects “the biologically strongest part of the forest . . . the most rich and valuable, with sustainable streams,” says Waldo. Destroying old growth forests strikes at the heart of biodiversity, including “mixed, diverse stands with trees up to 700 years old.”

This old growth forest “supports a unique and important assemblage of wildlife,” says Fenster. These ancient havens of flora and fauna are also crucial to the planetary environment, since “old-growth forests also store carbon and play a subsequent role in regulating regional and global climates.”

The Tongass provides timeless environmental treasures. Fenster explains that “Most of the old-growth forests remain as they were more than 100 years ago. Only about 2 percent of the Tongass has been harvested in the last 50 years.”

Mike Jackson, a citizen of the Organized Village of Kake, a Native American tribe, adds that old growth forest sustains the traditions of his people. Undisturbed, the Tongass is ideal for hunting and fishing.

However, this ancient way of life faced disruption, as “logging and clear cutting had a huge impact on deer and salmon,” Jackson says. Clearcutting changes the “composition of each river.” Once trees are gone “soil is exposed, and sediment and fine particulate goes into rivers. Salmon’s lifecycle is interrupted.”

When a clearcut does start growing back, the entire composition of nature is changed. “Old growth—you can walk through like a park,” Jackson exclaims. It is composed of “big old fallen trees that fell down naturally, moss, less brush.” The scene is edenic: “wildlife love it, it’s lush, it has the food they need to exist.” Old growth forest, then, is friendly to Jackson’s people, the Kake, allowing them to hunt, fish, and forage, and to grow berries around their villages.

Following clear cutting, the forest that returns is far less hospital.   “Exposed to direct sunlight, different vegetation, mainly Alden, pops up,” says Jackson. “It’s nature’s way of mending the soil.” However, this new, young forest is hostile to traditional ways of life. Once the trees reach about 15 years old, they are dense and intertwined, with broken limbs, so one needs a machete to walk through. At this point, “wildlife can’t even use it, only smaller rodents,” says Jackson, because the canopy blocks out all of the light.

Disrupting the Tongass thus disrupts a whole way of life and tradition. “Our identity is tied up with the forest, land, and water,” says Jackson. “The bears guide our spirits after we walk into the forest when we pass on.” He adds that, for “every one of us, our names come from the spirits.” His own spirit is raven on land and salmon in the water.

As a young man, Jackson left the tribe and earned a degree in Forest Management from Oregon State University. Yet, instead of exploiting his opportunities he decided to return home. “I learned how to develop roads and clearcut,” says Jackson, but it only “gave me a better understanding of what we’re doing to our forests, land, and water.”

Not all native tribes feel the same as Jackson. Some support development and the money that it brings. Indeed, the Kake Village faced opposition from “other tribes that were pro-logging and pro-development, and are still.” The Kake suffered intense criticism, but “the tribe took it and we defended ourselves because we’re proud to put a face to our customary and traditional lands.”

Jackson fiercely defends his heritage, explaining that “we are responsible for interpreting to our grandchildren and seven generations down the line why we did what we did.” He is fighting preserve traditions threatened beginning seven generations ago when the first European sailing ships appeared in the region.

Beyond hurting nature and native traditions, logging the Tongass makes little economic sense. Waldo points out that the network of logging roads is not economically viable without massive governmental support. By itself, the logging industry “couldn’t afford to maintain a vast network of logging roads,” says Waldo. Indeed, these roads have an $8.4 billion maintenance backlog nationally. In the Tongass, there are a “very small number of jobs, maybe 150, created by very, very expensive logging . . . versus tens of thousands” of ecotourism and fishing jobs.

The Forest service, however, sees other value in the road system. Fenster explains that “the roads on the forest may be built for a timber project, but then are used to connect communities or used by people for subsistence gathering, hunting, and much more making it difficult to place a dollar value on them.”

Besides clear cutting old growth forests, there are many ways to obtain wood and other forest products. Earthjustice is “not against the production of wood products,” says Waldo. However, these “should be made from places wood can be harvested on a more sustainable basis.” Options include tree farming, low-impact harvesting of young-growth forests, and of course recycling. Waldo believes that “we really should be stopping logging in old growth forests altogether.”

Despite the Supreme Court victory, some logging continues in the Tongass on roads already constructed. Currently, “about 1.8 percent of the forest” remains under contract and subject to logging, according to Fenster, while “approximately 92 percent of the Tongass is protected from roaded development.”

Over time, the Forest Service hopes to phase out old growth logging. The Tongass Draft Forest Plan Amendment will move “away from old-growth timber harvesting and towards a forest products industry that utilizes predominantly young growth trees over the next 10 to 15 years,” says Fenster. This “will conserve old growth forests while allowing the forest industry time to adapt.”

For Waldo, this is too long to wait to protect fragile and endangered ecosystems. “Tongass has suffered way too much loss,” he says. “Species like wolves are significantly imperiled.” Earthjustice is fighting for the U.S. government to end harvesting of old growth forest altogether in the next five years.

Environmental fights are always ongoing. The time to rest is never. Yet victories in the battle for the Tongass have saved a human, natural, and planetary jewel.