America’s Spectacular Tongass National Forest is on the Chopping Block
2017 certainly reminded us that protecting public lands requires vigilance. Just recently, the President drastically shrunk two national monuments and Congress sold out the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to industry interests. While these actions grabbed headlines across the country, other public lands were attacked more quietly, including the nation’s largest and wildest national forest, the Tongass National Forest. One such stealth attack is an effort to promote industrial scale clearcutting of old-growth habitat on the Tongass by rescinding the 2016 Forest Plan amendment intended to reduce that destruction. Another seeks to exempt the Tongass (and the entire State of Alaska) from the celebrated 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This rule is a landmark provision that protects intact wildlands by channeling logging and other development activity on national forests to lands already impacted and fragmented by road construction.
Meet the Tongass: America’s Majestic Rainforest
Established in 1902, the Tongass National Forest encompasses almost 17 million acres of wild forest in southeast Alaska. It constitutes the largest intact temperate rainforest reserve on the continent. The low-elevation, large old growth trees — some over 800 years old — that provide the highest quality fish and wildlife habitat, however, occur on only 4% of the forest and about half of that prime habitat has already been lost to destructive clearcutting. Five species of salmon, brown and black bears, bald eagles, wolves, mountain goats and Sitka black-tailed deer all call this national forest home. Migratory birds that come from all over the continent spend the summer nesting and breeding in the Tongass. Off the coast, there are marine mammals including orca and humpback whales, sea lions, seals and sea otters.
To save what is left of the viable fish and wildlife habitat, we need strong protections like the Roadless Rule. That remaining habitat supports vibrant fishing and recreation and tourism industries that are now the primary economic drivers in southeast Alaska after government employment, providing 25% of the region’s jobs and economic activity. In contrast, the timber industry provides less than 1% of the regions jobs and earnings. The timber industry has long struggled to make ends meet, costing taxpayers over $130 million from 2009–2013 alone as timber sale receipts consistently fell far short of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) expenses. The USFS began a transition away from the expensive and destructive legacy of Tongass clearcutting in 2008, and accelerated that transition in 2016, with a Forest Plan amendment encouraging the end of the practice within 15 years.
A few remaining corporations, however, are still clearcutting large swaths of ancient old-growth forest in the Tongass, and they have some influential friends. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the powerful chairwoman of both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has introduced legislation to rescind the 2016 Forest Plan amendment and to allow more old-growth clearcutting to happen. She is also pushing to exempt Alaska’s forests from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, putting wildlife and irreplaceable habitat in grave danger. These “riders” (so dubbed because they are not relevant to the underlying legislation) will be on the table when Congress negotiates its final FY 2018 funding bill, which is expected in late January or February.
A Time for Action
Senator Murkowski’s harmful riders will have lasting negative impacts on the Tongass, on the growing, sustainable economies of southeast Alaska and the management of national forests across the nation. Thankfully, we can still protect the Tongass and make sure these riders do not become law. You can help by contacting your Senator or Representative and letting them know you support our wild forests and the exceptional habitat they provide. Lend your voice to the fight to keep the Roadless Rule, the current Tongass forest plan and this amazing ecosystem intact.