Tongass National Forest, Threatened by Increased Logging

Considered a treasure of the United States, national forests draw millions of visitors each year. Today, one of the United States’ 154 national forests has become a subject of significant controversy due to a recent proposal made by the Trump administration. This proposal recommends expanding logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. In a state known for its vast, untouched wilderness, this proposal has been met with fierce opposition. Environmental awareness has been on the rise in recent decades and many view this proposal as a step in the opposite direction.

Spanning 500 miles, Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States and contains the world’s largest temperate rainforest. It features mountains, glaciers, old-growth forest, salmon streams and is home to bears, wolves, eagles, and people. Indigenous groups have inhabited the Tongass for over 10,000 years. Approximately 70,000 people live in the Tongass National Forest today. Included in this figure, is the population of Juneau, which is situated within the Forests’ bounds. As surprising as it may sound, the Tongass is not just pristine wilderness, but contains towns and logging areas as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 8 percent of land in the Tongass is currently developed. However, that may soon change. 

Juneau, Alaska (Source: Flickr/Andrei Taranchenko)

Forest management in the U.S. has a long history, beginning in 1876, with the creation of an office of Special Agent, within the USDA, to assess forest conditions across the country. The creation of this office was followed by the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 which allowed the President to create forest reserves. Finally, in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created within the USDA, transferring the responsibility of the forest reserves from the Department of the Interior. 

A comparatively recent measure, the 2001 Roadless Rule, has further protected 58.5 million acres of land within the National Forest System. This rule protects National Forest System lands from development by road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting. The Trump Administration’s new proposal would exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule, releasing millions of acres of the Forest from its protection. The proposal, supported by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, is being publicized as beneficial to the state’s economy.

This October, the USDA published a draft environmental impact statement concerning increased logging in the Tongass. The statement, prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act, outlines various scenarios of logging in the Tongass. The six options detailed in the environmental impact statement vary from no change to the complete removal of the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule. The preferred alternative would remove 9.2 million acres of land from the protection of the 2001 Roadless Rule and would convert 165,000 acres of old-growth forest and 20,000 acres of young-growth forest from unsuitable timber lands to lands suitable for logging.

Reconstruction of a logging road in the Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/
Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA

This proposal to increase logging in the Tongass National Forest has been met with opposition from environmentalist and indigenous groups. An image from a rally supporting the continuation of the 2001 Roadless Rule greets you on the main page of the Southeast Alaska Conservation website. An entire section of the group’s website is dedicated to “Attacks on the Tongass” and posts urge you to submit a comment to the National Forest Service. Similarly, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network International (WECAN) and Earthjustice are involved in the Tongass activism. The two groups helped bring together the WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation, which traveled to Washington D.C. in March of this year to protest the logging proposal.

Several indigenous groups live near the Tongass and have deep ties to the land, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Tribes. According to local activists involved with the WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation, increased logging will threaten native culture. The delegation strives to preserve their way of life for future generations. Both indigenous and conservation groups fear the impacts increased logging will have on the natural environment within the Tongass. 

Much uncertainty lies in how increased deforestation and development could affect ecosystems, impact water resources, or affect recreation in the Tongass. Freshwater sources in the Tongass provide drinking water and hydroelectric power to surrounding communities. These aquatic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to land use changes, as they depend on glacier flow, snowmelt, and forest health. Fishing in Southeast Alaska is a source of food, recreation, and income. Rivers within the Tongass are kept clean and cool by large trees, creating conditions that sustain an abundance of spawning salmon. However, increased logging in the Tongass may threaten river conditions and salmon populations.

Brown bear catches salmon, Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/brewbooks)
Sockeye Salmon in Steep Creek, Tongass National Forest
(Source: Flickr/ Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)
Historical dam on Nugget Creek in Tongass National Forest, Source: Flickr/ Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)

According to Jason Amundson, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Southeast, glaciers in the Tongass, like all glaciers across the globe, are melting rapidly. Loss of glaciers would disturb the flow of cool water from snow melt to rivers and streams. This disruption, coupled with increased logging may have significant impacts on rivers and fish populations within the Tongass.

Dr. Amundson believes public opinion of the proposal is mainly negative in Juneau, Alaska. This opposition stems from salmon fishermen and others who want to preserve Alaska’s natural resources. Dr. Amundson explained that the state of Alaska is very resource dependent and different groups can have conflicting uses for these resources. Resource development appeals to some, as it provides jobs, however, others argue development damages the natural environment, which is the main draw for tourists to the state.

Dr. Amundson emphasized the uncertainty of repercussions from increased logging. He believes it to be unlikely that increased logging would have significant impacts on glaciers in the Tongass. Although, he speculated that changes to the landscape could result in changes in temperature, producing local effects on glaciers. Dr. Amundson explained that across the globe, glaciers are generally situated on more barren lands and not in close proximity to forests. Glaciers within the Tongass National Forest differ in this way, as they are located near forested areas. For this reason, increased logging in the Tongass may have a significant impact on the Forest’s glaciers. However, Dr. Amundson stressed that there is not enough research on the topic to accurately draw conclusions.

Dr. Amundson visits the Tongass to perform research on the Forest’s glaciers and for recreational purposes. While the proposal does not directly threaten his research on glaciers in the Tongass, he believes it could impact recreation. He thinks increased logging in the Tongass may impact visitor experience for those who come from out of state.

Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest national forest in the U.S. A controversial proposal would open 9.2 million acres of the Forest to logging.
Kayaking with Mendenhall Glacier in background, Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/Joseph)

While there is currently no evidence linking increased logging with damage to glaciers in the Tongass, altering the landscape can influence climate change. Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon and reducing carbon absorbed by the atmosphere. As a massive temperate rainforest, the Tongass is one of the world’s major carbon sinks. If logging increases, this carbon sink could disappear, which would result in an acceleration of global climate change and impact glaciers in the Tongass and all over the world.

Mendenhall Glacier, Tongass National Forest, (Source: Flickr/Pat W. Sanders)

The implications of exempting the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule are unclear. This uncertainty has heightened fear and distrust of this proposal, particularly because local culture and the Southeast Alaskan economy depend on the Tongass. Seafood harvests, cultural ties and energy production are just several ways Alaskans depend on the National Forest. The Our Forests Are Alaska campaign stresses this connection between communities in Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest. 

Tongass National Forest Staff in Sitka’s Alaska Day Parade (Source: Flickr/Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)

The Secretary of Agriculture is expected to make a decision regarding the future of the Tongass National Forest in the 2001 Roadless Rule by June 2020. The National Forest Service has scheduled public meetings and the USDA has opened the draft environmental impact statement to the submission of public comments. If you would like to add your voice to the debate, you have until December 17, 2019 at midnight to submit a comment.

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