Across Southeast Alaska, the refrain was the same: Let the Tongass be.
The U.S. Forest Service recently concluded a series of scoping meetings, leading up to Monday’s official end to the comment period on a proposed Alaska exemption to the long-standing Roadless Rule, and residents turned out in force to send a clear message back to Washington.
The Tongass National Forest is the foundation for strong fisheries, tourism and recreation in Southeast Alaska – the Alaskan way of life. As a vast, wild home to unparalleled vistas and wildlife such as bears, wolves, bald eagles, otters, beavers and five species of Pacific salmon – where 1,000-year-old towering spruce and hemlock trees stand guard – the Tongass must be left the way it’s been and the way it’s intended to be.
Brown bears like these on Admiralty Island are ubiquitous throughout Southeast Alaska. (Len “Doc” Radin)
First implemented in 2001, the Roadless Rule prohibits the construction or expansion of roads through sensitive habitats and wild areas, protecting more than 58 million acres of national forest lands throughout the U.S. For the Tongass, the Roadless Rule ushered in a shift from the subsidized logging of old-growth forests to a sustainable management approach that recognizes the national forest’s unique ecology and multiple values. This summer, the Trump administration – together with Alaska Governor Bill Walker and Alaska’s congressional delegation – announced an effort to turn back the clock and rewrite the Roadless Rule to provide an exemption for national forests in Alaska.
Many of the Southeast Alaska residents who spoke out against this effort lived through decades of taxpayer-subsidized logging, when the federal government spent up to $20 million per year supporting timber sales in the national forest. They saw what it did to the natural environment and didn’t do for the local economy – where timber currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the region’s employment. As 78-year-old Jimmie Rosenbruch of Gustavus put it: “Let’s decide what will really make this temperate rainforest be something for the next generation.”
Recreation and tourism are a billion-dollar industry in Southeast Alaska. (Richard Spener Photography)
Southeast Alaska’s economy is already transitioning toward a sustainable future, and this proposal to repeal Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass threatens the foundation of that transition. The Roadless Rule as applied to the current Tongass National Forest management plan balances protections of the old-growth forest with community access and economic development — allowing exemptions for public roads, hydropower projects, utility connectors and access to inholdings (including mines). To date, 55 exemptions of the Roadless Rule have been requested by the interests above, and in each case, the exemption was granted. At the same time, it’s stopped damaging old growth logging in many areas of the forest. If old-growth logging were to resume in the 9.3 million acres of national forest protected by the Roadless Rule, the real drivers of the region’s economy – recreation, tourism, guiding and fishing – would be imperiled.
The truth is that the old-growth logging industry can’t survive on its own. Tongass timber is no longer competitive because of changes to global timber markets, high labor costs, distance from markets, and less expensive substitutes, according to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. In fact, last fall, the Forest Service publicized a proposed Tongass timber sale and received no bids (even after the federal government spent $3.1 million building new roads). Not one. Spending millions more taxpayer dollars to build roads to clear cut this ancient forest makes no economic sense. Particularly since the agency currently has a backlog of millions of dollars in repairs for the existing 5,000 miles of logging roads that crisscross the Tongass.
The old-growth logging industry is dependent on federal subsidies for survival, and much of the logged wood is shipped in the round overseas. (Alaska Wilderness League)
The value that the Tongass provides exceeds economics – and is felt well-beyond Southeast Alaska. Across the globe, the last remaining old-growth forests are one of our best remaining hopes for stabilizing runaway climate change. The Tongass is a prime example. Our nation’s largest national forest absorbs approximately 8 percent of the nation’s annual global warming pollution. No other national forest even comes close, making the Tongass the nation’s premier climate insurance policy.
Additionally, when old-growth rainforests like the Tongass are cut down, they release up to two-thirds of their stored carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to increased storm intensity, sea level rise, wildfires and climate-related health risks.
The Tongass is home to the highest concentration of bald eagles in the United States. (Richard Spener Photography)
The Tongass contains the last remaining largely intact old-growth temperate rainforest in North America. It is one of the last truly wild places. Leaving it intact for future generations is a long-term strategy that is vital for Alaska, our nation and our world.