By Todd Broadman
The Tongass forest, referred to as “America’s Amazon,” was designated a National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. The Tongass is one of the largest, relatively intact temperate rainforests in the world. U.S. Forest Service, charged with managing its vast 16.7 million acres, developed a travel plan and new policy for the area in 1990 with passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act. Since then, the Clinton Administration issued Roadless Rule, prohibiting new road construction on previously undeveloped national forest lands across the country; that included 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. That put an end to larger scale logging.
Recently though, the Trump administration removed Roadless Rule protections from the Tongass National Forest. In combination with the Forest Service’s reclassification of certain old-growth parcels – 168,000 acres – as “suitable timberlands,” a major swath of the forest is open again to clear-cut logging. The underlying rationale follows a predictable pattern: the need for economic growth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, issued a recent notification concerning the Tongass: “changes can be made without major adverse impacts to the recreation, tourism, and fishing industries, while providing benefits to the timber and mining industries, increasing opportunities for community infrastructure, and eliminating unnecessary regulations.” The Forest Service is charged with approving all above-ground operations and construction in national forests.
The timber industry is among the most prominent lobbyists behind the removal of protections. “The forest products industry has been imperiled for some time,” claims Tessa Axelson of the Alaska Forest Association, and went on to assert that, “There’s a handful of small operators that are working on the Tongass, harvesting timber. In order to continue to survive, those businesses are dependent on a predictable supply of timber.” The industry has the ear of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who desires a full exemption from the Roadless Rule to open the Tongass up to recreation and renewable energy, “while ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters.”
Along with Murkowski, Alaska Governor, Mike Dunleavy, strongly backs the Trump administration’s “job and opportunity creating” move. The governor has a large constituency – the state has experienced declining oil revenues and employment since development of the Prudhoe Bay oil field began in the summer of 1969. According to Dunleavy, “Trump has given responsible resource development a fair shake.”
Dunleavy has carried out massive cuts to the Alaska state budget, and though opposed by many, has been supported in the move by his core conservative constituency in favor of slimming down big government. Although Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay is the largest such oil complex in the country, overall oil industry employment numbers in Alaska are small and have shrunk markedly since the end of the oil pipeline boom in 1978. Since 2000, the industry has employed under 5000 workers, versus retail, for example, that employs ten times that amount. Recently, oil industry layoffs have been constant due to reduced travel due to COVID-19 and the global drop in oil prices.
The Tongass National Forest is an ecosystem of glacier-carved fjords, thick green forests of old-growth hemlock, spruce and cedar; spongey carpets of muskeg, and expansive fields of rock and glaciers. The wild salmon and associated fish industry depend upon an intact landscape. In spite of this, the timber industry cites the high economic value of old growth timber. Clear-cutting would have long-term impacts and opponents claim that government subsidies to the timber industry cost taxpayers far more money than is generated.
Environmentalists call the Tongass “our silent partner” due to its absorption of carbon; they point to its healthy and wild salmon runs. The area contains 14,873 miles of anadromous rivers and streams. The fishing industry says that removing protections would threaten the more than $2 billion per year commercial fishing and tourism industry in the area. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska’s seafood industry accounts for nearly $6 billion in direct output as well as $8 billion in “multiplier effects generated as industry income circulates throughout the U.S. economy.”
President Donald Trump, when he stood amid the burned down homes of Paradise, California, nearly two years ago, indirectly blamed lack of forest resource development on the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. “You’ve got to take care of the floors, you know? The floors of the forest, very important.” He followed that by ordering the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior to make federal lands less susceptible to catastrophic wildfires through the removal of dead trees, underbrush and other potentially flammable materials. He gave the Secretary of the Interior the final decision on granting oil and gas leases on National Forest lands and that of course includes Tongass National Forest.
Native tribes have not, as expected, been a significant part of the Administration’s decision. Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake on Kuprean said that “They just completely ignored our input and input of the other five tribes, so I felt very disrespected.” In total, a half-dozen tribes withdrew their cooperation with the Forest Service. The Native community strongly opposes the opening up of their lands to logging. They still rely upon the Tongass for their way of life. Richard Chalyee Eesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said “Our health and well-being, identity and worldview are intricately woven into the fabric that is our homeland.”
In response to claims of potential environmental damage, the USDA claims that carbon released from logging will be insignificant. Dominick DellaSala, a scientist with the Earth Island Institute, counters that “There’s no science that supports their analysis.” His own analysis concludes that the carbon dioxide emissions from logging the 160,000 acres of old-growth forest would create the equivalent of adding about 10 million cars to the road.
There is a bill before Congress – the Roadless Area Conservation Act (HR 2491) – that, if passed, would make the Roadless Rule permanent. At stake are the remaining 58.5 million acres of undeveloped forests throughout the country. Two states though – Alaska and Utah – have recently filed petitions seeking exemptions to the rule and open up a combined 13 million acres. The Administration supports these and other exemptions.
Author’s note: As I write this brief, election results are nearing completion and it is likely that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will win; if so, reinstating protections to the Tongass and other public lands is expected.
- https://www.outdooralliance.org/ is the only organization in the U.S. that unites the voices of outdoor enthusiasts to conserve public lands and ensure those lands are managed in a way that embraces the human-powered experience.
- https://www.earthisland.org/ supports environmental action projects and helps foster the next generation of environmental leaders in order to achieve solutions to the crises threatening the survival of life on Earth.
- https://alaskaconservation.org/ is the only public foundation solely dedicated to conservation in Alaska.