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.
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.
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.