Alaska’s Magnificent Tongass National Forest Threatened by new “Chainsaw Rule”

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Tongass National Forest (Image: Wikimedia)

The Trump Administration is substituting the “Chainsaw Rule” for the Roadless Rule in managing the vast Tongass National Forest.  The largest national forest in the United States, at 16 million acres, it takes up most of Southeast Alaska.

With publication of an Environmental Impact Statement late last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set in motion removal of 9.37 million acres from a ban on construction of new logging roads, enacted in 2001 during the waning days of the Clinton Administration.

The immediate impact would be to open up 168,000 acres of old growth forest, and 20,000 acres of younger forests, to loggers’ chainsaws.  With much, much more to come.  The Tongass was for a half-century dominated by logging and pulp mills prior to the Roadless Rule.

With Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell in the lead, 60 Democrats in Congress have decried the policy, on the grounds of the economy – Southeast Alaska’s salmon and tourism/recreation economies – but with emphasis on climate.  The trees of a great temperate rainforest have standing when it comes to protecting the planet, as the Democrats argue in a letter to USDA:

“The Tongass would rightly be managed as America’s climate forest because of the Tongass’ critical capacity for carbon storage and climate change mitigation.  The protection of these lands for their conservation value also supports healthy populations of salmon and other wildlife essential to the people of the region.”

Alaska politicians have long argued, witness Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a Seattle Times op-ed, that they should have sway over lands in the 49th State.  In practical terms, given who these politicians work for, that usually means Big Oil, the mining industry and timber companies calling the shots.

But the Tongass belongs to all of us, including those who go sport salmon fishing out of Sitka, cruise to the calving tongues of tidewater glaciers (except in 2020) and take commercial fishing boats up the Inside Passage.

Amy Gulick, photographer/author of The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind, put it succinctly in a recent post:  “As an American citizen, there are many things I am grateful for, but the one thing that sets us apart as a country from any others is the idea of public land . . . the notion that these are places that we decided were too beautiful and too important to be plundered, and that all people, regardless of their standing in life, could enjoy.”

With the seminal 1980 Alaska Lands Act, and subsequent legislation, Congress did protect “crown jewels” of Southeast Alaska.  Almost all of million-acre Admiralty Island – expect for two hideous clearcuts on native corporation land – was protected as a national monument.  The sea cliffs of Misty Fjords on the Alaska-British Columbia border, comparable to Norway, likewise became a national monument under U.S. Forest Service management.

But a great many low-elevation ancient forests, where salmon spawn and grizzly bears feed, were left out.  I visited the isolated hamlet of Tenakee Springs on Chichagof Island, some years back, and crossed by boat to an estuary where Ursus Horribilis was feeding.  The estuary was flanked by big, old trees, protected only by the Roadless Rule.

With the Trump Administration, the back channel meeting determines public policy.  Gov. Dunleavy met with President Trump in 2018 when Air Force One stopped in Alaska as Trump returned from Asia.  Dunleavy put the case for withdrawing the Roadless Rule.  Trump told Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to get it done, the Washington Post reported.

“The one-size-fits-all Roadless Rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, argued in a Post op-ed piece.  Its removal will help “build a more sustainable economy while still ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters.”

While Murkowski is credible, the stewardship promise is not.  Just look at the 20th Century history of the Tongass.  The national forest was virtually turned over to the timber industry after World War II.  Giant pulp mills were built in Sitka and Ketchikan.  A third was slated for the state capital of Juneau.

The Forest Service managed for the mills.  It laid out and paid for logging roads, getting back about 4 cents on the dollar.  The government was selling 800-year-old trees, in a memorable observation by Tim Egan in The New York Times, “for the price of a Big Mac.”

The pulp mills are long closed, but taxpayers have continued to subsidize what’s left of the Southeast Alaska forest industry. In the words of the letter to Perdue from Cantwell et all:  “Even before the pandemic, in part due to the administration’s disastrous trade policies, the Tongass was selling virtually no timber and the Forest Service was subsidizing the remaining Tongass timber industry at the rate of $30 million a year.”

The letter warns of clear cut conflicts with the healthy fishing and tourism components of Southeast Alaska’s economy. 

Some years back, when the pulp mills were going full blast, I joined a journalists’ tour of Southeast Alaska.  We were feted over dinner in Ketchikan by Forest Service brass and timber company executives, who completed each other’s sentences.  They raved about how quickly cut-over forests “grow back” in the wet local climate, telling us we would see for ourselves the next day on Prince of Wales Island.

We did.  The forest was growing back in such thickets that it was impossible to see how any wildlife could move or feed.  Streams were choked with debris.  Culverts showed damage from periods of heavy rain.  Our hosts brushed aside reservations.  The forest was endless.  They had only made a tiny imprint on it.

Cut to decades later, and a warning from Collin O’Mara of the National Wildlife Federation:  “This extreme (Roadless Rule) proposal will harm a stunning array of wildlife, threaten wild salmon populations, and undermine local economies that depend on a vibrant outdoor recreation industry.”

One set of actors were left out in the Trump Administration’s rush to remove the Roadless Rule.  Eleven Southeast Alaska native groups have argued that the land has life-sustaining value for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimishian peoples, they have proposed a “Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule”.  It would provide for negotiations with the Forest Service over such issues as salmon streams and old growth stands needed for canoes.

The Democrats’ message:  Slow down and listen. “The United States Forest Service denied native tribes in SE Alaska their requests for the agency to hold face-to-face, government to government consultations and subsistence hearings prior to finalizing the FEIS. Under the law and binding agency guidance, and out of simple respect, USFS has an obligation to conduct such meetings in person.  There is no urgent need to move forward with this rulemaking.”

A Biden Administration can and should reverse this railroading of logging roads, as soon as it (presumably) takes office in January.  Alaska’s boomer politicians can raise the usual cry, “It’s ours!’  The reality is that the Tongass National Forest belongs to all of us, including Native Americans who were here before us.

The image of those grizzlies on Chichagof has stayed with me.  Along with our hosts, I cannot see taxpayers paying for roads, getting back the price of a Big Mac, and messing up a place that where the forest sequesters carbon, the stream sustains salmon, and the bears and tourists are glad of it.

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