Alaska’s Ancient Rainforest: Why restoring the Tongass is good for everyone

Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Photo by John Schoen.

The Southeastern panhandle of Alaska is a uniquely remote, stunning place — a network of more than 1,000 islands, jagged coastlines, and dense, mist-shrouded forests that have been home to thriving human, animal, and plant communities for millennia. Nearly 80% of this wild region, 16.8 million acres, is the Tongass National Forest, the largest primarily intact temperate rainforest in the world.

To the approximately 70,000 residents of Southeast Alaska, the resources from the sea, streams, and forests of the Tongass are a lifeline — yet disagreements over how these resources should be managed have fueled decades of bitter debate among loggers and fishermen, local and national stakeholders, and local and regional businesses.

Conventional wisdom says that the Tongass is a battleground, and the opposing sides seem clear: conservationists against loggers, unemployment versus job growth. While that “either-or” model may have been the case a decade ago, new research by Wilderness Society economist Evan Hjerpe shows it no longer applies — the Tongass can be managed without dividing communities.

" restoring the forest and focusing timber extraction away from ancient trees and into younger second-growth forests, communities will actually enjoy better long-term impacts..."

In a new study, Hjerpe suggests an innovative management strategy for the globally unique Tongass that advances the ecological health of the region while creating forest restoration-based jobs that boost the economies of local communities. Hjerpe found that by restoring the forest and focusing timber extraction away from ancient trees and into younger second-growth forests, communities will actually enjoy better long-term impacts than with the current logging model.

The study directly supports the Forest Service’s own proposal, the Transition Framework, to diversify economic opportunities for rural communities beyond old growth timber harvest.

Hjerpe says federal appropriations that are currently directed at old growth timber harvest in the Tongass could be focused on promoting both economic and ecological sustainability — as opposed to the current timber management system focused on economic impacts at the cost of ecological sustainability.

Better sources of revenue

In the mid twentieth century, when timber extraction was booming in the region, the industry helped small Tongass communities, such as Ketchikan and Sitka, grow and modernize. Yet building roads and infrastructure for work in the remote reaches of the Tongass has required hefty federal subsidies, amounting to tens of millions of dollars annually. Today, demand for Tongass timber is down and the largest logging companies have long since left. Logging now accounts for less than one percent of local employment, and revenue from recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing is much greater than that of timber. Yet federal subsidies are still directed to the program.

“Support of the timber program has cost U.S. taxpayers a quarter billion dollars over the last eight years and over a billion dollars since its inception,” said Hjerpe. “Regionally, supporting one industry at the expense of others has left communities vulnerable to boom and bust cycles of economic development.”

The solution? A transition strategy that values restoration of the Tongass’ natural resources above all other concerns, allocating federal money into three main sectors: riparian restoration, forest restoration, and management of second growth forests.  In his report, Hjerpe compares this management solution to the current approach, modeled using the last eight years of commercial forestry supported by federal funds.

Restoration proves better for ecology and economy

Hjerpe found that a transition to a restoration-based vision would have a minimal immediate impact on the economy of Southeast Alaska, and would ultimately provide more enduring fiscal benefits in the form of sustainable jobs and revenue from tourism, recreation, fishing, and smaller-scale logging.

Under the new management system, forest products would primarily come from the stewardship and restoration of second growth stands. The change in forest management would also diversify southeast economies, leaving them better able to withstand future market fluctuations.

Beyond these considerable economic benefits, restoring the forest would provide a number of services — such as clean water, salmon, and wildlife habitat — that are difficult to measure, but essential to the communities of southeast Alaska. The Tongass is one of the top ten carbon storing national forests in America, and the sections of old growth forest — with trees that are 700 years old and six feet in diameter — are especially important for carbon storage.

With this new information, The Wilderness Society will continue to work with the Forest Service, local communities, and other partners to develop restoration and second growth projects that benefit both ecological and community health.

“With a new approach to forest management, the Tongass can continue to provide a wealth of fiscal, ecological, and intrinsic benefits to the communities of Southeast Alaska — and far beyond — that will survive for generations to come,” Hjerpe said. 

Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Photo by John Schoen.