AS THE SKY CLEARED over rain-swept Southeast Alaska one August afternoon in 2019, we flew over Prince of Wales Island to take in its lush forests. Numerous fresh clearcuts interrupted the deep green cover on the United States’ fourth largest island located at the southern end of Alaska’s massive Tongass National Forest. In some spots, stands of younger trees stretched their canopies across older, logged areas. On the whole, though, the forest here looked rich and vast.
But looks can be deceiving. During the twentieth century, loggers cut down a hefty slice of old-growth forest blanketing this island. Old-growth forests throughout Tongass — the nation’s largest national forest that covers most of the southeastern panhandle of Alaska — have been battered over the years by clearcutting. And, no place in Tongass has been hit as hard as Prince of Wales Island, most of which lies within the national forest. The northern half of the island has had the highest rate of logging anywhere in Southeast Alaska, according to a 2016 state report.
Logging slowed down dramatically in the 1990s due to market fluctuations, litigation, and other factors. Still, by 2013, researchers estimated that 94 percent of Prince of Wales Islands’ contiguous high-volume old-growth forests had been logged, coinciding with a 75 percent decline in the island’s wolf population. The forests got a reprieve in 2001, when President Clinton approved a “roadless rule” banning the Forest Service from building new roads into undeveloped forests. The rule essentially placed 9 million of the 16.7-million-acre Tongass off limits to logging. But this past October, President Donald Trump made good on his 2019 promise to the timber industry and rescinded the roadless rule, reopening its 9 million protected acres, including 225,000 acres of old-growth on Prince of Wales Island, to logging yet again.
Our investigation revealed the ease with which players in California’s carbon offset program can game its accounting system.
Amid this backdrop, Sealaska Corporation, a Native Alaskan-owned company that happens to be a major player in the global log trade, is promising to preserve 165,000 acres of forestland it owns in the Alaska panhandle, mostly on this island, as a carbon sequestration bank. This seems like welcome news on all fronts — until you start digging, as we did, into the broader, global climate implications of the move.
Our investigation found that, while preserving this land provides clear benefits for the island’s wide diversity of flora and fauna, it is doubtful the climate will actually benefit. Moreover, it revealed the ease with which players in California’s carbon offset program can game its accounting system to make it seem like they are easing the climate crisis when they actually are not.
SEALASKA — WHICH IS COLLECTIVELY owned by more than 23,000 Native Alaskans from the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian tribes — was one of 13 for-profit corporations formed in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Act that sought to resolve century-old land-claims disputes between Alaska Natives and the state and federal governments. (Native leaders say the act helped them “retain” only a portion of their ancestral lands that were stolen by European settlers.)
Today, the company has a $700 million business portfolio that includes seafood processing, natural resources and land management, and logging. The corporation’s subsidiary, Sealaska Timber Company (STC), manages around 360,000 acres in Southeast Alaska, and primarily sells western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western red cedar, and Alaska yellow cedar logs. Over the last four decades STC has accounted for a sizeable portion of the company’s revenue, almost exclusively from the sale of raw logs to China, Canada, and elsewhere. Its log exports are expected to continue unaffected by the carbon-offset program.
In January 2018, BP Alaska, an American subsidiary of the London-based oil company formerly known as British Petroleum, announced that it had agreed to pay Sealaska $100 million to keep nearly half of this forestland — 165,000 acres — standing and thus storing the carbon trees absorb from the air in their living tissue. The deal, verified through California’s cap-and-trade program, was one of two carbon offsets projects with Native Alaskan corporations that the oil giant invested in. It means the company will not commercially log these acres for the next 100 years. There are, however, exceptions allowing for trees to be cut for customary tribal activities such as making totems and canoes. Some amount of logging might also be possible, provided it does not reduce the total carbon sequestered on the project below the initial baseline level. The baseline level is an estimate for how much of the forest would have been cut down in the absence of the carbon credit certification. Sealaska received the last payment installment from BP this past March.