Sprawling across 16.7 million acres of southeastern Alaska, the Tongass National Forest is known to many as the “crown jewel” of the National Forest System. The largest of America’s national forests, this spectacular landscape contains some of the last surviving old-growth temperate rainforest on the continent and is home to numerous species of rare and imperiled wildlife. At the end of August, The Washington Post reported that President Trump has instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to issue a plan to open it up to industrial-scale logging.
The battle for the Tongass has been going on for decades. Large tracts of the forest had been decimated by years of publicly subsidized old-growth logging before the 2001 “Roadless Rule” banned road construction and timber harvesting in 58.5 million acres of national forest across the country, ensuring that more than 9.5 million acres of the Tongass would be protected. These newly protected areas joined 5.7 million acres of previously protected wilderness in the Tongass, meaning that the majority of the forest would be off-limits to logging. In 2016, the Obama administration was set to end old-growth logging in the region altogether, with plans to phase out the practice within 16 years.
The logging industry has fought these protections every step of the way, and in President Trump they have found an enthusiastic ally. Since he came to office, Trump has pushed hard for changes to allow timber companies to operate more freely in federally-owned forests, including measures to expedite the permitting process and reduce the role of scientific oversight and public input in decisions over proposed logging and road-building projects across 193 million acres of forest nationwide.
Alaska’s leaders have long been of the view that the Roadless Rule should not apply to their state. Last April, Alaska filed a petition with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) requesting an exemption from the rule to allow logging in the areas of the Tongass it protects, including some of the forest’s last remaining old-growth trees – some more than a thousand years old. With Trump’s latest order, it appears that widespread public opposition to the plans has been ignored and the logging industry is a step closer to realizing a longstanding ambition.
Logging old-growth forests has devastating impacts on biodiversity and wildlife habitats and reduces the invaluable benefits, like clean water and carbon sequestration, that these forests provide.
If the Tongass logging goes ahead, America stands to lose some of its last surviving coniferous old growth woodland, and with it, crucial habitats for brown bears, Alexander Archipelago wolves, Sitka black-tailed Deer, Northern Goshawks and other species, including the various species of wild salmon on which local fishing communities depend, and which make the Tongass a renowned fishing destination that brings millions of tourist dollars into Alaska every year.
With more than 900 watersheds, the Tongass, like all old-growth forests, plays a critical role in providing the clean water essential for healthy fish and wildlife populations as well as for several communities in the region. Old-growth woodland provides natural water filtration and nutrient cycling, regulating stormwater runoff and cleansing the soil of pollutants. Soil erosion caused by logging and other human activities leads to increased quantities of nutrients, sediment and other pollutants making their way into rivers and streams, which can be devastating for fish and other aquatic species. Fish populations can be deprived of oxygen when nutrient levels in water become excessive, and can also suffer due to the increased water temperature caused by loss of the shade provided by dense old-growth trees.
The damage wrought by the destruction of the Tongass, however, will extend far beyond Alaska. Forests are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal for mitigating the effects of climate change, and this one in particular is especially vital. Known as America’s “climate forest,” the Tongass stores hundreds of millions of tons of carbon – 8 percent of the total carbon stored in all U.S. forests. The proposed logging of old-growth areas of the forest would transform this bastion of carbon sequestration into a carbon emitter (60 percent of the carbon stored in a tree is released by logging and manufacturing). An analysis of long-term USFS proposals to log 43,000 acres of old-growth and 262,000 acres of young-growth forest in the Tongass estimated that this would be equivalent to putting an additional 4 million vehicles on the nation’s roads and keeping them there for a century.
Exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will come at a huge cost to Alaska and the global climate. But it could also set a dangerous precedent, leading to further exemptions that would place large areas of protected woodland elsewhere in the country under threat. In 1999, more than 1.6 million people submitted comments on the Roadless Rule, 95 percent of them in support of it, reflecting a widespread desire for greater protections to safeguard America’s forests and the crucial benefits they provide. A national survey commissioned by Pew Charitable Trusts in February this year indicates that this public sentiment has not gone away, with 75 percent of those polled expressing support for the rule.
Were it up to the American people, the battle for the Tongass would have ended long ago with permanent protection for roadless areas of the forest. As it is, with the Trump administration once again threatening our public lands, Americans once again must rally to ensure that the benefits provided by this ancient forest, and others like it, remain for future generations to enjoy.
Image: USDA Forest Service