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Tongass National Forest is 'America's Last Climate Sanctuary'

Opening up the Tongass National Forest to additional logging and development could have serious implications for both the environment and the Alaska Native communities that depend on it.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education
Tongass National Forest From Above.jpg

The Tongass National Forest’s trees hold about 650 million tons of carbon, which convert to about half of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. Image Credit: Phillip Gladkov

When you walk into the temperate rainforest of the Tongass, a peaceful stillness greets you. The dense canopy of this misty Alaskan wilderness is made up of towering western hemlock, red and yellow cedar, and Sitka spruce trees, some of which are between 300 and 1,000 years old. Lichens adorn the trees with a mosaic of colors and textures, moss and ferns carpet the forest floor in lush green hues, and crystal-clear streams carve their way toward the Pacific Ocean.

This ancient swath of nature is part of the United States’ largest national forest, which is a key habitat for wild Pacific salmon and trout and boasts the highest density of brown bears in North America. In addition to being a haven for rare wildlife, it is Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, and is among the world’s best carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere like a sponge.

In late October, President Trump announced plans to open up more than half of Alaska’s 17 million acre Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, downgrading safeguards that had protected it for nearly two decades. The decision to open up the Tongass to loggers could have serious implications for both the environment and the Alaska Native communities that depend on it.

“While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” says Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project. “It’s America’s last climate sanctuary.”

The move by the Trump administration would overturn the Roadless Rule Act, which safeguarded the forest against industrial clear-cut logging and road building on national forest lands since it was passed in 2001 by the Clinton administration, with widespread approval among conservationists and scientists. In 2019, the U.S. Forest Service released a summary of public comments which were overwhelmingly supportive of keeping the roadless protections in place.

tree stump and forest

Clear cutting in the Tongass National Forest. Image Credit: Michael Ryan Clark

However, Alaska state officials are welcoming the decision to reverse the roadless rule. "With the Trump administration's help, the devastating Clinton-era roadless rule may soon be history, and the Tongass restored to a managed multiuse forest as it was always intended," Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in his State of the State address in January. Others who support the decision cite the importance of increased road access to bolster logging, mining exploration, and renewable energy development.

"In 2001 Alaska's timber industry had over 500 million board feet of manufacturing capacity in Southeast Alaska, but now over 80% of that 2001 manufacturing capacity has been starved out of business and the remaining manufacturers are barely surviving at a small fraction of their capacity," wrote a coalition of business leaders in a letter to the U.S. Forest Service. Those in favor of relaxing restrictions of the roadless rule include the Alaska Resource Development Council, the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the Alaska Miners Association.

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Climate experts weigh in

In justifying development in what has been described as an “ecological oasis,” the Trump administration is presenting an argument that many scientists disagree with: that any emissions from logging will be “temporary,” due to the timber sequestering carbon in building materials while the forest regrows and stockpiles even more CO2.

The Trump administration’s draft environmental impact statement acknowledges the ecological importance of the Tongass National Forest in regulating global climate, but also claims that opening up the region to logging and development will not have long-lasting negative effects.

“Potential negative effects on the Tongass may be ameliorated and may be completely reversed with time, reducing or eliminating potential negative cumulative effects on carbon and climate,” noted the U.S. Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

logs piled up, from above

In 2018, some 19 million board feet of timber were cut in the Tongass, down from more than 100 million board feet in 1999, two years before the roadless rule took effect. Image Credit: Phillip Gladkov

Beverly Law, an Oregon State University emeritus professor whose forestry research is referenced in the statement, has called the science used to justify logging “misinformation.” This is in part because these reports fail to account for harvest impacts on forest carbon. If the forests are allowed to grow, they can continue to accumulate live carbon for hundreds of years, as observed in the Pacific Northwest, Law says.

It is important to note the difference between old growth and new growth forests. In the past, scientists were divided on whether it was better to focus on the stewardship of ancient forests, or to prioritize the replanting of new, young forests.

Although young forests can absorb more carbon when trees are planted close to one another when they are small, researchers have found that a tree’s carbon absorption rate accelerates as the tree ages. Which means that forests made up of ancient trees—like the temperate rainforest of the Tongass—are comparable to the Fort Knox of carbon, Law noted.

When these forests are logged, the carbon that they had been storing is released back into the atmosphere. Some old-growth trees in the Tongass are hundreds of years old, so it would take a very long time for the forest to regain such a huge amount of carbon, Law explained.

“Trees globally remove about 30% of the additional carbon dioxide that we add to the atmosphere,” Law says. “They're doing a lot of work in climate mitigation, and what we need to do is let them continue that work, because once you harvest these big trees with a high carbon density, it’s as if you are robbing the Fort Knox of carbon reserves.”

In fact, a new study published in early November concluded that,protecting and growing more large trees is the most effective option for accumulating more carbon out of the atmosphere, and will benefit other ecosystem services as well.”

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently estimated that if logging did not occur in the Tongass, then Alaskan forest carbon storage could increase by about 27% by the end of the century.

“To put that into perspective, that would be equivalent to about 19 years of current greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the state of Alaska,” says Logan Berner, a global change ecologist who lived in Southeast Alaska for over two decades.

The Tongass National Forest is not just America’s last climate sanctuary, but the ancestral homeland of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples. For tribal representatives, this rollback on protections jeopardizes their cultural traditions and way of life, as well as the biodiverse habitats that attract millions of tourists to Southeast Alaska each year, bolstering the local economy.

Ecological Impacts

Every year, one of nature’s great marvels unfolds within the nutrient-rich freshwater streams of the Tongass: Millions of salmon return to spawn. In June and July, five species of salmon leave the Pacific Ocean and return to this region to lay their eggs in the same freshwater streams where they were born. Once they have spawned, the salmon die, fulfilling a life cycle that provides nutrients for many protected species found in few other places in the continental United States.

“There is a trade-off between logging and healthy salmon populations,” Berner says.

When logging companies go in and clear-cut these massive trees on a steep slope, there is a huge amount of sediment runoff because of how much it rains in Southeast Alaska, sometimes as much as 12-and-a-half feet annually, which can cause landslides and choke salmon streams, Berner explains.

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A landslide in the Tongass National Forest. Image Credit: Phillip Gladkov

“We've already seen wild salmon populations decline in much of western North America because of watershed deterioration, and exempting the relatively pristine Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule would adversely affect fisheries as well as recreation and tourism, which are huge elements of the economy in Southeast Alaska,” Berner says.

The nutrient-rich waters of the Tongass produce about 50 million salmon valued at $60 million annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Salmon.jpg

Ninety-six percent of Alaskans surveyed by the USDA say salmon are essential to the Alaskan way of life. Image Credit: Michael Ryan Clark

To put into context how critical salmon are to Southeast Alaska, the USDA also noted that nearly 90% of rural households in Southeast Alaska consume salmon, and on average, a resident of Southeast Alaska’s rural communities consumes 75 pounds of salmon per year, while the U.S. national average for seafood consumption is less than 15 pounds per person per year.

These productive lands and waters are the reason that the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian tribes and their cultures have thrived in this region for over 10,000 years.

Forest Service Alaska Region.jpg

In Alaska, salmon are also a keystone species, meaning that many other species in the ecosystem depend on them. Brown and black bears gorge themselves on salmon in preparation for hibernation, bald eagles feast on the spoils of these fish, and wolves even wade into the rivers to hunt for salmon. Image Credit: Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA, Flickr

Alaska Natives push back

To Joel Jackson, tribal president of the Organized Village of Kake, no one is more interested in the future prosperity of these lands than the Indigenous first peoples of Alaska: “Our lands and waters provide us with our food, our cultural resources, the ability to practice our way of life,” Jackson says.

Salmon is so much more than a simple food item to Alaska Natives. The five species of salmon that the Indigenous first peoples of Alaska harvest and preserve are built into a complex distribution system based on 10,000 years of tradition, and represent a core element of their social gatherings. Whether at the gas station, dock, or any social gathering, salmon, and the distribution of it, is as interwoven with their culture as the lands and seas they rely upon.

Salmon by Marina Anderson .jpg

The average Alaskan eats between six to eight ounces of fish per day. But Indigenous residents tend toward the upper end of that range since fish, particularly salmon, play a crucial role in many tribes’ cultural heritage. Image Credit: Marina Anderson

“It’s not food, it’s the fabric of my being,” says Marina Anderson, tribal leader for the Organized Village of Kasan on Prince of Wales Island. “We’ve always been coastal dwelling people, and the salmon are our food source, and it relies on a well-balanced old-growth forest. Everything that we are made of is part of what is around us. That includes the forest, the beaches, the sky, and our totem poles and carvings come from the old growth, red and yellow cedar trees.”

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Yah’guudang, a Haida phrase that means “respect for all living beings,” has driven the cultural, environmental, political, and business decisions of the Haida people for more than 10,000 years. Image Credit: Marina Anderson

For Alaska Natives, healthy old-growth forests and salmon streams are integral to the future of their communities. As a former logger who participated in the timber boom around Kake, Jackson knows this intrinsically.

“Now, I am surrounded by the long-lasting effects of this short-sighted industrial activity,” Jackson says. “The paychecks and jobs have dried up, but the forest, our deer and moose populations, and our salmon streams have not yet recovered from this era. Since we have seen firsthand the destruction of the resources and habitat that our community depends on, we seek to protect what is left.”

Jackson made it clear that his community is prioritizing longevity over profits. “The Organized Village of Kake is not interested in short-term profit, exploiting what we have to create gains for the next 10 to 50 years,” Jackson says. “We are planning for the next 10,000 years of prosperity.”

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Marina Anderson, sitting in an area of clear-cut temperate forest on Prince of Wales Island in Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Image courtesy of Marina Anderson

Marina Anderson highlighted the fact that Alaska Natives are fighting to reclaim their ancestral culture and identity, and this is innately tied to stewardship of natural resources.

“We have not rebounded from the boarding schools and blatant attempts at colonization, because colonization is still happening, and we're having to fight it every day,” Anderson says. “We're not ready to lose more of our home right now.”

From the early 1900s to 1970s, Alaska Natives were taken from rural communities that lacked primary or secondary schools and sent to boarding schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), private churches, and later Alaska’s state government. Within these schools, there were reports of physical and sexual abuse, and children were beaten for speaking their native langauages, according to a University of Alaska study on the long-term effect of boarding schools on Alaska Natives.

The primary goal of many educators during this era of compulsory boarding schools was to assimilate Native peoples into white American culture, the study noted. The implications of this system are still being felt today as many students not only suffered the loss of their language, but also their culture and identity. For these Native communities, the loss of children to boarding schools dealt a tremendous blow, one that led to a breakdown in society and increased drug and alcohol use.

There are still Alaska Native elders that talk about these boarding schools, Anderson says. She recalls an elder who had everything taken from him, who was forced to burn his belongings, and was given a jumpsuit with a number on it to identify him.

“He barely remembered his Native name, but he said he would never forget the number that they gave him,” Anderson says. “They will always remember that number because it was the first time a new identity had been placed upon them. This happened to an entire generation of our people.”

To Anderson, the increased logging and development of the Tongass will adversely affect the Haida tribe and their connection to their ancestral homeland.

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Marina Anderson’s nephew standing where an old growth cedar tree once stood. Image Credit: Marina Anderson

“The lack of access to the materials that we live in balance with leads to the further genocide of our people, our culture, and us not being able to hand down our traditions,” Anderson says. “It results in our people staying lost, and not being able to reconnect with who we are.”

With President-Elect Joe Biden publicly claiming he will be a “climate change pioneer” while in office, Joel Jackson is hopeful that he will keep the roadless rule in place.

“I think the whole country is watching very closely to see what Biden will do,” Jackson says. “We will be working to meet with his transition team to discuss these matters and make sure he follows through,” Jackson says.

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