Berkeley, CA (November 9, 2020) — On October 28 the Trump administration issued a decision to open Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and road building — a move that would degrade one of the largest remaining intact temperate rainforests in the world.
The Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States with trees over 300 years old, provides pristine habitat for several species of salmon, black-tailed deer, black and brown bears, bald eagles, and wolves. Orca and humpback whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, river otters, and porpoises swim offshore. Its old-growth forests are a massive carbon sink. Any logging activity would release this carbon, further contributing to climate change.
“It’s America’s last climate sanctuary,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, said in the Washington Post. “While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America.”
DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, is also the author and editor of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World. Wild Heritage will be part of a coalition being formed to fight the Trump administration’s decision and protect this pristine wilderness.
DellaSala told Earth Island, “I am blessed with a career that has taken me to the far reaches of nearly all the world’s temperate rainforests. I keep coming back to the Tongass because there are few places on Earth where ancient conifers touch the skyline, salmon are lined up to spawn in streams so packed that they resemble rush-hour traffic, wolves and bears feed on spawned out carcasses, and glaciers touch the ocean. It needs to be saved as America’s climate sanctuary.”
The Tongass also has a place in Earth Island’s history. Earth Island’s founder David Brower understood the significance of a roadless area. Seventy years ago, Brower’s son, Ken, recalled the day his father called him and his brother into the dining room of their home and spread out a large map on the table: The North American coast from British Columbia up through the Alaska panhandle. “Six hundred miles, and it’s not crossed by a single road,” Ken recounts his father saying.
Twenty-five years later, in fieldwork for his book The Starship and the Canoe, Ken found himself in the middle of the misty glaciated fiords and straits of the Alaska segment of that map. In a kayak, with one of his protagonists, he paddled from Glacier Bay down to Canada, through the Tongass.
“Coasting the rocky tideline, directly beneath the lush, boreal green wall of rainforest, we paddled by bright orange starfish and purple anemones — as if the tropical colors of coral reef had somehow invaded the North. We counted the bald eagles that post themselves at the tip of every promontory of the Tongass. We spoke to ringed seals sleeping at the surface as we passed. We watched giant Steller sea lions hunting, and were surprised once to see a fox hunting for amphipods under the stones of the beach. We passed teams of humpback whales bubble-net feeding. One night a humpback blew alongside, misting us. We paddled on south through the bad breath of a whale,” Ken shared with Earth Island.
“It turns out there was always a road, after all, in this wilderness: The Inside Passage, a watery highway that you hike with a double-bladed paddle. It threads its way through the fiordland of the Tongass, one of the wonders of the natural world. At the moment it is under threat, as my father knew it would be. ‘They only have to win once,’ he often warned, of the extractive industries — the loggers and miners and dam builders. ‘We have to win every time.’ In the Tongass we have to win one more time again,” Ken said.
Gershon Cohen, with Earth Island’s Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, said, “The Tongass, one of the last intact temperate rainforests on Earth, is magnificent even by Alaska standards. The forest’s giant old-growth spruce, hemlock, and cedars not only provide critical habitat for Southeast Alaska’s salmon, bears, and eagles, they are the foundation of our culture and society. Keeping what’s left intact isn’t only important from a spiritual perspective, it is critical to maintaining the region’s sustainable fishing and tourism economy into the future. Cutting new roads into the forest to provide access for logging and mining is not ‘multiple use’ — these private, for-profit, non-renewable activities will eventually eliminate all of the non-destructive ‘uses’ of this incredible ecosystem. The Tongass National Forest belongs to every American; it is part of our country’s commons. It needs, and deserves, our full protection.”
Chad Hanson, forest ecologist and director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, said, “This attack on the Tongass National Forest underscores why we need new laws in the future to fully protect our national forests. In the meantime, we urgently need leadership to protect all existing old-growth forests and roadless areas on the Tongass.”