Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, is in serious jeopardy from interests seeking to cut down its rich old-growth tree stands.
Protecting the Tongass: America’s Premier National Forest
The Tongass National Forest is often referred to as “America’s Rainforest.” It is our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. At 17 million acres, it is roughly the size of West Virginia and contains the largest remnants of intact old-growth forest habitat in North America. It is a mosaic of rugged, ice-capped mountains, deep fjords, ancient forests, hundreds of large and small islands, countless channels and bays, glaciers, lakes, and hundreds of rivers and streams.
The wildlife values of the Tongass are unrivaled. Despite decades of industrial logging that stripped large swaths of its biggest and most accessible stands, its remaining old-growth forest habitat supports iconic species like brown and black bears, wolves, bald eagles, marten, and mountain goats, as well as endemics like Queen Charlotte goshawks and northern flying squirrels. The Tongass boasts no fewer than 5,000 streams and is home to five species of Pacific wild salmon, which serve as a foundation of the local ecology as well as the local economy—approximately 70,000 people call the Tongass home.
Felling Old-Growth Forests
The Tongass is the LAST forest in the entire country where old-growth trees are still logged on an industrial scale. Clearcutting old-growth is an outdated practice, largely abandoned because of its destructive impacts and unsustainability. Old-growth logging harms fish and wildlife habitat, as well as associated recreation and ecotourism, like hiking, boating, kayaking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. The economy of Southeast Alaska generates $2 billion annually from fishing, tourism and outdoor recreation.
The Tongass represents one of the last remaining bastions of our natural old-growth habitats in North America. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service finalized a plan to transition away from clearcutting old-growth forests. Now, however, the agency is back to proposing the largest sell-off of old-growth forest that the U.S. has witnessed in decades.
Putting a Price on Prince of Wales Island
In its Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis Project, the Forest Service is proposing to log an estimated 200-million board feet of old-growth forest over the next 10 years. This colossal liquidation of forests on Prince of Wales Island would destroy thousands of acres of high-quality wildlife habitat in the Tongass.
It would threaten the persistence of Alexander Archipelago wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer, and northern goshawks. If allowed to proceed, the proposed plan could spell disaster for these and countless other species dependent on these unique and irreplaceable old-growth forests.
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
The current proposal is just one in a long list of threats to the Tongass in recent months.
Defenders and our national, state and local partners have been working to combat a number of attacks that would chip away protections for the Tongass and its incredible wildlife and rare, intact old-growth forest ecosystem, by galvanizing support in Alaska and throughout the nation.
For example, we have partnered to oppose a proposed sale of more than 5,300 acres of public timber on Wrangell Island—almost all of which is old-growth forest. We also fought a timber offering on north Kuiu Island, which was based on an outdated environmental review and would have negatively impacted deer, black bears, salmon, and marten.
Even more sweeping in scale, however, are efforts by Alaska’s Congressional delegation to sell off or sell out the Tongass by transferring lands to the state or private corporations. One deal is already done: the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange Act traded productive old-growth timber lands to the Alaska Mental Health Trust for clearcutting, in exchange for lands near residential areas not suitable for logging. This exchange helped the Trust, but hurt the forest. Another bill, S. 785, recently heard in a Senate Energy and Natural Resource subcommittee, would transfer thousands of acres of the forest to Alaska Native individuals or corporations. See our opposition letter here.
There is also the stunning H.R. 232, the State National Forest Management Act of 2017, sponsored by Alaska Congressman Don Young, which would allow any State to select up to 2 million acres of its national forest lands for transfer to state ownership. In addition to exposing vast Tongass acreage to extensive logging, some states could see all of their national forests transferred to state ownership and logged with far fewer protections for fish and wildlife.
There is H.R. 229, creating several new Native corporations and allowing them to select over 23,000 unrestricted acres, each from the Tongass; H.R. 230, awarding cash or credits to Shee Atika Corporation in exchange for lands the company has already clearcut; H.R. 211, allowing Chugach Alaska Corporation to acquire 500,000 acres of federal land in Alaska or anywhere in the U.S., in exchange for unspecified lands that may have already been liquidated. You get the picture.
Defenders will to continue to fight these and other proposals to recklessly sell off the Tongass and sell out our wildlife. We will also continue to actively promote the transition away from all destructive old-growth logging on the Tongass and oppose any efforts to transfer or sell out our national forest lands to state or private ownership or management.