Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, 9.4 million acres of intact temperate rainforest, including the nation’s largest swath of old-growth forest, will, as of tomorrow, be open to the construction of roads and expanded timber harvest, according to a notice posted this week in the Federal Register. Tongass is an enormous carbon sink, pulling tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—nearly 10 percent of the amount all the forests in the rest of the US combined—while also providing some of the last, best habitat for wild salmon, as well as large populations of brown bears and Sitka deer.
Last October, the Trump Administration announced plans to exempt Tongass from the Roadless Rule, a Clinton-era prohibition on road building and infrastructure construction in remote and wild areas within national forest land. After a 60-day public comment period, the White House was relatively quiet about its plans for the area until the notice this week.
Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources had been lobbying the White House for expanded logging in Tongass, hoping to goose economic growth in southeast Alaska. However, according to a report prepared by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the USFS lost $16 million last year engaged in the limited logging currently allowed in Tongass.
Many Indigenous groups in southeast Alaska are outraged at what they consider the cold shoulder by the Trump Administration, which asked for their input, then seemingly ignored it entirely.
“It’s just another broken promise to tribes as far as we’re concerned,” Hoonah Indian Association Administrator Bob Starbard said.
The Roadless Rule required the federal government to consult with Indigenous tribes across the region. Nine such groups were invited to participate in public discussions about the potential of opening Tongass to more roads and logging. Overwhelmingly, the consensus among the native Alaskans was: “don’t do it.”
96% of the public comments fielded during the open comment period opposed rolling back environmental regulations in Tongass.
“The Tongass, which we sit in the middle of, is part and parcel of being Tlingit. We are people of the land,” Starbard said. “It became clear at the very end, however, that the game had already been fixed.”
“It was apparent that our participation — requested by the federal government in the throes of this rulemaking process — was a form of box-checking, a form of the government saying that they had consulted with us properly and they met with the Indigenous people properly,” said Marina Anderson, administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island.
Anderson’s father was a clear-cutting logger decades prior, not uncommon among Indigenous groups at the time. She has a unique perspective about what’s at stake.
“These landslides happen on clear-cut lands. This morning I said, ‘It’s landslide day,” she said, noting there had been heavy rain. “I’ve grown up seeing these mudslides my whole life. As a culture committed to balance, it’s my responsibility to bring back that balance from what [my father] had done.”
The rule change will be fought in court, however, by environmental groups, potentially tying up any plans to begin construction. And with an election next week, with a potentially new administration in 2021 that would likely reverse this decision, some of this zeal to log could be an attempt to help pro-timber Alaskan politicians in reelection battles. Political gamesmanship with a sensitive ecological zone that can scarcely absorb it.
“While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, said in an interview. “It’s America’s last climate sanctuary.”
For more on the politics and ecosystem of Tongass, check out Tongass Odyssey: Seeing the Forest Ecosystem through the Politics of Trees.