Tongass National Forest: A better future for this Alaskan gem?

 

I have never visited the Tongass National Forest, and there’s probably a good chance that I never will. But like many other silence-evoking places, I find both comfort and pride in knowing it exists today much as it did in the past.

The Tongass is a national jewel, America’s only rainforest, where emerald trees line streams choked with the ruby and silver colors of salmon, all set in jagged mountains that pierce the sky. Its ancient trees shade lumbering brown and black bear and the lush islands lining the Pacific coast. But the Tongass is more than a unique treasure; it’s a primary source of livelihood for the state of Alaska. The forests and streams of the Tongass give back clean air and water, and provide key salmon and deer habitat vital to the subsistence way of life for many Alaska natives.

The Tongass, our largest national forest, however, is saddled with one of the few remaining old-growth timber sale programs in the United States. Decades of clear-cut logging has left valuable watersheds and wildlife habitat damaged and needing repair. Recognizing the failures of past management, and the forests’ many benefits, the U.S. Forest Service last year made a commitment to move away from old-growth timber harvest to an economy with more long-term viability. The transition promises to create sustainable jobs and economic stability in the region based on restoration, fish, tourism, and recreation, while protecting vital old-growth forest stands.

But Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young are actively working to undermine the administration’s vision. Recently, they reintroduced the Sealaska lands bill (S. 730 and H. 1408), which would transfer nearly 80,000 acres of the most productive forestlands in the Tongass to Sealaska Corporation.  These lands represent some of the most popular and productive areas in southeast Alaska, and support the region’s true economic drivers of fishing, recreation and tourism. Instead of providing long-term sustainable jobs, the Sealaska bill seeks to subsidize the leftover logging industry and prolong the old boom-and-bust cycle of old-growth clearcutting.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act granted specific acres of land to Sealaska Corporation in 1971.  While The Wilderness Society supports Sealaska’s right to claim its outstanding acreage, we do not believe the corporation should be allowed to rewrite the rules and seek land that was not allotted in the original agreement.

The Sealaska bill would significantly stymie the Forest Service’s efforts to move away from the unstable old-growth dependent logging economy to one based on sustainable long-term management of young growth and renewable resources.  Our recent report Seeing the Tongass for the Trees shows that the economic viability of southeast Alaska communities depends upon smart management of the region’s renewable natural resources and a transition away from old-growth and roadless logging.  If passed, this bill would strip the Forest Service of its most productive lands and get in the way of the agency’s efforts to diversify economic opportunities in the region.

The Sealaska bill is a giant step backwards in terms of stabilizing Southeast Alaska’s economy.  We should continue to move beyond the boom-and-bust old-growth logging of the past and work toward a healthy future of conservation, restoration, and diverse economic opportunities. The Tongass is far too important a national treasure to be left to the chainsaws and lumber mills. 

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