A small child wearing a blue onesie stands on a path passing through tall, lush trees
The Tongass has 19 designated wilderness areas. Here, Bjorn Dihle’s son, then 15 months old, explores a brown bear trail in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness on Admiralty Island. In Lingít, the language of the Tlingit people, who have called the Tongass home since time immemorial, “Kootznoowoo” means “Fortress of the Bear.” For more than 50 years, those who wanted to clearcut it and those who wanted to conserve its bears and wild nature fought over Admiralty Island. In 1980, Congress voted to make much of the island designated wilderness. Photo by Chris Miller.

Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest encompasses 26,500 square miles of temperate rainforest, mountains, and glaciers. The Tongass’ 1,100 islands and rugged mainland are the ancestral home of the Tlingit and Haida people. The marriage of forest to sea forms an abundant ecosystem and the groundwork for the Tongass’ rich and complex cultures.

The Tongass is often called the “lungs” of the planet and North America’s equivalent of the Amazon. It holds 44 percent of all the carbon stored in U.S. national forests and is key to mitigating the effects of climate change. Today, 72,000 people live in Tongass communities from Metlakatla in the south to Yakutat nearly 450 miles away in the north. The Tongass is a place of natural wonder and consequences. Here, locals pray to salmon, ask for forgiveness from brown bears, and sometimes go a month without seeing the sun hidden in rainclouds. It is also a dream destination that attracts over a million visitors annually.

Wide, landscape shot of a clearing and mountains behind that are still covered with snow in the shaded areas. A bear and her cub are small in the middle of the clearing.
This mom and cub brown bear are in a watershed on Chichagof Island that in the 1980s the Forest Service had planned to clearcut. The watershed was well known for its incredible salmon runs and population of brown bears. Biologists, hunters, and others fought hard, and at the last minute, after the Forest Service had cut a road partly there, were able to save the area. Photo by Chris Miller.
A group of people stand in front of a large white house and hold signs shaped like trees and salmon with messages about protecting the Tongass
Southeast Alaskan residents show their support for protecting the Tongass in front of the governor’s mansion in Juneau. Besides being a rich place to live or a dream destination to visit, the Tongass is recognized for being an invaluable carbon sink critical in mitigating the effects of climate change. Photo by Colin Arisman.
Woman with red hair smiles at the camera in this portrait inside a tribal house
“Environmental justice is social justice,” says indigenous leader Marina Anderson. Anderson is from Kasaan, on Prince of Wales Island, where her Tlingit and Haida ancestors have lived for centuries. The Tongass, with its rich ecosystem, is the lifeblood of its indigenous people. Anderson knows first-hand how interwoven her culture and the environment are. She has been a leader in fighting to restore protections to the Tongass to help safeguard future generations of southeast Alaskans. Photo by Colin Arisman.

The fate of the Tongass has long been contentious. After the fabled hand-logger days of the early 20th century, the Tongass’ timber industry turned into an unsustainable era of pulp mills fed by clearcutting giant swaths of old growth forest. That industry, and its heavy subsidization by the American taxpayer, has long been a deep point of controversy and at odds with sustainable uses of the forest. In the past 40 years, taxpayers have lost $1.7 billion dollars “selling” Tongass trees while damaging habitat vital for people, salmon, and other species. Intact old growth habitat is vital for southeast Alaska jobs—26 percent of the region’s workforce earns their keep from the Tongass’ billion-dollar commercial fishing industry or in the billion-dollar visitor industry. Less than one percent of jobs comes from timber.

In 2001, the Roadless Rule was established to prohibit old growth logging and the building of new logging roads in about 14,000 square miles of the Tongass. From an ecological and economic standpoint, much of the most valuable forest had already been cut. Thousands of miles of logging roads already crisscross southeast Alaska and, according to the Forest Service, $100 million is needed for restorations of rivers, streams, and lands damaged by past logging. In October of 2020, the Trump administration announced they were axing Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass, opening up nine million acres for clearcut logging or industrial development. This announcement came after a rushed process that ignored 96 percent of commenters who testified that protections are important and should be kept in place.

Man stands facing a large tree and spreads his arms to the side to display the trunk's width. His arms do are not as wide as the massive tree trunk.
Dihle examines a giant Sitka spruce tree on Prince of Wales Island. Only about half the Tongass is forested. The rest is covered by glaciers, rocks, muskeg, and alpine tundra. Only about three percent of the Tongass consists of “large tree old growth”—trees with trunks that have a 21-inch diameter or bigger. About half of the Tongass old growth has been cut. Giant trees like the one pictured have become increasingly rare. Photo by Chris Miller.
A wooden sign for Kootznoowoo Wilderness is nailed to tree. A Pacific marten rests on top the sign.
The Tongass National Forest consists of more than 26,000 square miles of wet, wild, rugged country. It’s America’s largest national forest and is home to thriving ecosystems that are built on the flesh, blood, and spawn of salmon. Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, moose, wolves, brown and black bears, and a host of other wildlife, including this Pacific marten, live in the Tongass rainforest. Photo by Bjorn Dihle
A man on a boat pulls a silver salmon from a line using a wooden pole with a hook on the end
Salmon are a foundational part of the Tongass. For many of southeast Alaska’s residents, salmon are essential to their livelihood and culture. Seafood is the largest private sector industry in the region. Here, Ryland Bell lands a coho while power trolling. There are five species of Alaskan salmon and all spawn in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of the Tongass. Each species needs a different type of habitat to spawn, but all are dependent on a healthy ecosystem to be successful. Photo by Chris Miller.
Blonde woman wearing salmon sisters cap puts salmon filets on a smoking rack
Commercial fisher and conservationist Elsa Sebastian prepares to smoke a batch of salmon. Elsa and her family have spent decades lobbying to protect the Tongass. They recognize the forest, salmon, and people of the Tongass are intertwined. Sebastian started the Last Stands Project in 2017 to raise awareness about the Tongass’ threatened ecological integrity. Sebastian and her partner, Colin Arisman, made the great Tongass documentary Understory, which explores what’s at stake for the future of Alaska’s great rainforest. Photo by Colin Arisman.
A brown bear stands on its hind legs in a forest clearing
A Tongass brown bear looks for a mate. Admiralty Island and nearby Chichagof Island have an estimated population density of one bear per square mile. Some say these islands have the densest concentration of brown bears in the world. The bears keep things interesting for residents and are part of what brings more than a million visitors from around the world to the Tongass. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.

Thankfully, that decision did not last long. On July 15, 2021, the USDA announced a radical shift for its plan for the future of the Tongass. They called for the Roadless Rule to be restored, for an end to industrial-scale old growth logging, and for a focus on sustainable uses of the forest and collaborating with tribes and other locals. Investing in what’s thriving and sustainable, rather than perpetuating the broken model of clearcutting old growth, means a better future for those who live in and want to visit the Tongass National Forest. 

Roads wend through a barren landscape with few patches of trees remaining. Downed logs are scattered about the cleared area.
The devastation from a clearcut on Prince of Wales Island. The Tongass temperate rainforest is cold, slow-growing, and, after being clearcut, takes hundreds of years to become as productive as it once was for salmon, wildlife, and people. Initially, after a forest in the Tongass is clearcut, there’s a 15- to 20-year boom of blueberry bushes and new growth. After that, trees grow back at the same height, compete for light, and create an understory dead zone that can last for generations. Photo by Colin Arisman.


Bjorn Dihle is Alaska magazine's gear editor and a lifelong resident of southeast Alaska. You can follow him at instagram.com/bjorndihle or facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.

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