How our science is helping save the Tongass National Forest

Etolin Island in Alaska. Courtesy USGS.

Yesterday, The Wilderness Society celebrated a small but meaningful victory in our ongoing efforts to protect America’s largest national forest — the Tongass National Forest.

The Forest Service’s plans to log more than 72 million board feet of timber on Etolin Island have been averted as a result of our successful appeal of the Navy Timber Sale. Although the decision does not ensure permanent protection for the magnificent trees, healthy streams and wildlife of Etolin Island, it is an important step in that direction. And, it is a hopeful sign of the progress we are making to bring science to bear on the decisions being made about the Tongass.

Timber and the Tongass

There are few places in the world like the Tongass National Forest, with its large stands of old-growth temperate rain forest, wild salmon streams, abundant wildlife, and unmatched recreational opportunities. But, logging over the last century has changed the Tongass by cutting the most mature forest stands, which are also the places most important for fish, wildlife, and ecosystem integrity.

If the timber industry continues to press for access to old-growth stands, and the Forest Service continues to make these areas available in its timber sales, we will lose what’s left of the Tongass’ most valuable habitat — wildlands that The Wilderness Society has estimated are worth as much as $2 billion annually.

The solution is not just a matter of blocking logging activity. The timber industry has long been a part of southeast Alaska’s economy and culture and provides important local jobs. Instead, The Wilderness Society is working toward solutions that provide for jobs and sustainable economic opportunities while still protecting the most biologically important places. We believe that is possible, and we are letting science lead the way.

Economic realities

For the past several years Wilderness Society economists have been studying the economics of different aspects of the Tongass forest and southeast Alaska communities. Our work has shown that market demand for Tongass timber is decreasing, and that non-timber products and services provided by the Tongass are far more valuable. In short, the consequences of continuing to log old-growth forest and build new logging roads can only lead to loss of future economic opportunities. The Forest Service provides jobs today through its timber program, but it does so at the cost of potentially irreversible ecological impacts — impacts that would undermine other economic opportunities and ways of life, including tourism, fisheries, recreation, and subsistence.

Solutions

With the knowledge that the current timber program is neither economically nor ecologically viable, The Wilderness Society’s continuing work on the Tongass focuses on finding alternative ways of managing the forest that make sense for its multiple uses and values, and the diverse interests of the people who live and work there. In addition to seeking permanent protection for the most valuable wilderness and wildlife areas, among the solutions we are exploring is the use of ecological restoration to provide jobs while also repairing and enhancing places harmed by past logging activity. We hope to demonstrate that through a forest management and timber program that utilizes second-growth or wood collected through restoration and thinning projects, it is possible to have the best of both worlds — local jobs and a healthy forest.

With our science continuing to lead the way, The Wilderness Society anticipates more success on the Tongass.

photo: Etolin Island in Alaska. Courtesy USGS.

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