The Last of Its Kind: The Tongass Faces Change
by Anthony Guntert
Last week, the Trump administration began the final stages of removing federal protection in the form of the Clinton era “roadless rule” which prohibits the building of roads and the growth of development such as timber and mining through 9.3 million acres of the pristine Tongass National Forest. Despite overwhelming public condemnation of the decision, Alaska’s three congressional representatives, all Republicans, welcomed the exemption of the Tongass from its long-standing protections, claiming that the Federal protections had for years hamstringed the local economy from growing in sectors such as logging and mining.
Just as tropical rainforests like the Amazon are the lungs of our planet, the Tongass National Forest in southwest Alaska does the same for North America. With over 8% of the United States’ carbon output per year being sequestered within its millions of spruces, hemlocks and cedars, the Tongass is one of the last and largest temperate rainforests left in the world. At more than 16.7 million acres of pristine temperate rainforest, glaciers and rivers, the Tongass provides one of the most important remaining habitat refuges for Grizzly bears, bald eagles, Sitka deer and all five species of the incredibly important Pacific Salmon. The importance of just these few species of salmon extends far beyond their creation of one of the largest job markets in southern Alaska via fisheries, they’re also the largest source of domestic salmon in North America. Beyond the massive ecological importance of the area, the local Haida and Tlingit tribes have lived as stewards of the land and sea in southeast Alaska since time immemorial; a sovereign right they have been denied for many years since white settlers arrived and claimed the land as their own. Most local groups, including native Tlingit/Haida council and the local union of fisheries, are unhappy with the further commercializing of the Tongass. In recent hearings and town hall meetings on the subject of the proposed changes in protected status, over 200 individuals have testified on behalf of keeping the Tongass, and its invaluable natural products, undeveloped.
In an interview, a representative of the Tlingit/Haida Tribal Forest Service spoke about the ever-present fear and anger their community feels about the exemption of their forest from protection: “This still happening, despite years of our input to the forest service, is an insult to our people.”
With over one quarter of local jobs being in the salmon fisheries fed by the Tongass and over $2 billion in yearly production when combined with the tourism industry, it’s no wonder that over 96% of comments that the US Forest Service has received are against the forest’s exemption from protection. On top of the massive economic production of the fisheries, the forest has provided over 3,000 new jobs in the hospitality sector with an almost 30% increase in tourism, just in the last four years. The hard-hitting industries of logging and mining, in contrast, currently provide only around two percent of all jobs in southern Alaska according to the Southeastern Conference. The proposed increase in development in these areas is highly unlikely to bring many new jobs to the area as mechanization and cheap, seasonal laborers from other areas are often utilized in regional lumber operations. In fact, this apparent lack of significant economic upside is coupled with a little-known fact that was pointed out by Paul Robbins of the US Forest Service: “By law, lumber companies have to make a profit in all operations. This means that we [the Forest Service] often subsidize big chunks of their expenses from road creation to the final sale at market.”
When asked how the US Forestry Service balances the creation of new jobs and economic opportunity with environmental protection, Robbins made sure it was understood that their mission was a difficult one. “We [The US Forest Service} exist to not only protect our national forests but to supervise the usage of natural resources in our forests in a responsible fashion. With over 93% of our 900 watersheds being in near natural condition and all endemic species being securely on the ‘least concern’ list due to our efforts, I think we’ve been doing a pretty stellar job.”
Not everyone is convinced of this claim, however, with multiple local and national environmental groups strongly condemning the allowance of logging and mining, even in the smaller quantities that are already allowed. According to the Alaskan chapter of the Audubon Organization, with over half of the old growth forests in the Tongass having been clear cut over the last century, “conservation is at a critical juncture.” According to their most recent article on the Roadless Rule rollbacks, the forest’s pristine watersheds feed into critical estuaries that provide nutrients and refuge for the entire ecosystem of southeastern Alaska. Compounded with the effects of global climate change and a volatile economic landscape, these drastic changes can have dramatically negative effects on all local industries with salmon fisheries expecting to be the hardest hit by way of falling spawn rates in suddenly unprotected rivers.
In the end, it seems this majestic work of nature, nestled in the crook of an ever-modernizing Alaska, is in danger of a slow slide into destruction. With every passing day, it’s looking like the only chance the Tongass has of subverting its future of logging and further development is through its reinstatement of protections under the upcoming Biden administration.