Piercing the heart of the Tongass

World Reports

On December 23, at approximately 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, staffers at the US Forest Service in Washington, DC pressed the “send” buttons on their fax machines, then scuttled through their office doors before the telephones started ringing.

They were apparently hoping that the nation would be too preoccupied with loved ones and celebrations to notice that the largest national forest in America had just been placed on the chopping block. The press releases they sent nationwide announced that Alaska’s Tongass National Forest was now exempt from the Roadless Rule.

The Clinton-era Roadless Rule was intended to preserve those roadless areas larger than 7,500 acres not already protected by other legislation. Of the 58 million acres protected by the rule, 9.8 million, or about one sixth, were in the Tongass.

Former Alaskan governor Tony Knowles filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state before the ink from Clinton’s signature was dry. He alleged that a clause in ANILCA—the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act of 1980, which resulted in the preservation of 115 million acres—decreed that no more land could be protected in the state. The decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule is the result of an out-of-court settlement of the lawsuit that was carried forth by Alaska’s current governor, Frank Murkowski.

The past 13 years have seen a flurry of paperwork and litigation pertaining to the Tongass, culminating in a 49-day public comment period this past summer. The Forest Service received an impressive total of roughly 133,000 public comments, or an average of 2,715 a day.

The US Forest Service does not track how many comments are in favor of the Tongass’s continued protection by the Roadless Rule, according to Ray Massey, public affairs specialist for Alaska Region’s National Forests. “This is not a vote,” Massey says. “Let’s say we got 100,000 comments from people who want the Tongass to remain protected by the Roadless Rule. Well, unless they present new scientific information we haven’t seen in previous Environmental Impact Statements, then they’re not much use to us.”

Dennis Neill, public affairs specialist for the Tongass National Forest, was hard-pressed to cite any scientific evidence that supports removing the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. The last extensive scientific study of the Tongass was performed in 1997, and Neill admits that since that time, “we have not undertaken any specific scientific study or experiments.” Over 300 North American scientists, 100 of them from Alaska, supported protecting the Tongass under the Roadless Rule.

“This decision is a slap in the face to both sound science and the public interest,” insists John Shane, senior scientist for Audubon Alaska and a field biologist who worked for 12 years in the Tongass National Forest. “The Roadless Rule would have safeguarded the integrity of the Tongass forest and would have ensured the sustainable use of fish, wildlife, and recreational resources in perpetuity,” Shane said. According to Shane, the Tongass is “one of the few places in the US where we have an opportunity to protect intact, functional ecosystems which still include healthy populations of wolves, brown bears, bald eagles, and five species of Pacific salmon.”

Much of the 9.8 million acres opened up by this recent decision is rock, ice, and muskeg. But the “heart of the Tongass” has timber companies drooling—300,000 acres of high-volume old-growth timber situated in low-elevation valleys. Only 676,000 acres of the Tongass contains such valuable timber. Most of the 376,000 acres of old-growth previously unprotected from road building and clear-cutting has already been depleted for pulp. Now it’s open season on the remaining 300,000 acres.

The rationale behind this ruling is that it will create jobs. Southeast Alaska undoubtedly needs jobs. Fishermen are hocking their boats and permits as they face a world market glutted with farmed fish. All the easily accessible minerals have been stripped from the land. Logging has never been profitable in the Tongass, though government subsidized pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka employed people for about 30 years. Those went out of business in the late 1990s; even with a generous federal subsidy they couldn’t compete on the world market.

But exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will create only a small number of jobs in the southeast, as the area does not have the capacity to process the timber locally. Spruce and hemlock will be shipped south to be transformed into railroad ties and plywood, and the yellow cedar will be exported as raw logs to Japan.

“Last year the Forest Service spent over 35 million dollars of taxpayer money to support less than 200 jobs in the Tongass,” said Buck Lindkugel, staff attorney and conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Alaska’s own economists have concluded that Tongass timber is no longer competitive in world markets.

Despite setbacks in recent years due to the introduction of cheap farmed fish, commercial fishing is still the largest private employer in southeast Alaska. Ninety percent of the salmon that are the backbone of this industry are born in the lakes and streams of the Tongass. Opening up the Tongass to road building and clear-cutting will have disastrous consequences on the salmon runs that people rely on for their subsistence and livelihoods.

Alaska’s fishermen get cash bail-outs. Why not give loggers cash and let the rest of us keep the forest?

The only sector of southeast Alaska’s economy that shows consistent growth in recent years is tourism. Tourists come to Alaska from all over the world because it is one of the last truly wild places on the planet. Cruise ships ply the Inside Passage, carrying as many as 750,000 passengers in a four-month season. The experience of passing endless green islands, viewing wildlife on the land and in the water, is what brings tourists to southeast Alaska. They don’t come to see roads and clear-cuts.

The Tongass National Forest covers 16.8 million acres, by far the largest in America’s national forest system. It’s the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest on the planet. Not just a state treasure or even a federal jewel, the Tongass represents habitat of global significance.

Marbled murrelets, Queen Charlotte goshawks, and bald eagles soar over these emerald isles. Sitka black-tailed deer, brown bears, and wolverines slink among the towering trees. Orcas, humpback whales, and Steller sea lions create a ruckus just offshore. All five species of Pacific salmon thrive in this wild, wet wonderland. Humans depend on the wild animals and plants for their subsistence and have done so for countless generations.

The Tongass National Forest belongs to all Americans, and we share responsibility for its management. Removing the Tongass from the Roadless Rule was a setback, but as Alice Walker reminds us, “anything we love can be saved.”

Léonie Sherman is a freelance writer and radio reporter.

Take action: Call your senators and representatives at (202) 224-3121 to encourage them to push for legislation to protect the Tongass. For more information, visit www.seacc.org and www.earthjustice.org/regional/juneau.

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