The stealth attack on national forests that nobody is talking about

New proposals would open up huge swaths of Chugach (above) and Tongass national forests to industrial-scale logging and road-building.

Credit: Jessica K. Ilse (USFS), flickr.

Little-noticed additions to a federal spending bill would cut protections for Alaska's Tongass and Chugach national forests, potentially introducing logging and road-building to nearly 15 million acres of pristine wildland.

Days before Thanksgiving, Congress launched the first ever legislative attempt to allow road construction and logging in roadless national forest lands, contravening a key 2001 conservation rule. 

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s obscure "riders" to the 2018 Senate Interior Appropriations bill would exempt Alaska’s two national forests, the Tongass National Forest and Chugach National Forest, from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.  

Coming as the national discourse centers on the tax code, net neutrality and a range of political scandals, the attack could scarcely have slipped further under the radar. Yet it is shocking in its implications for the way we manage forests. 

A partly logged section of Tongass National Forest. Credit: Alan Wu, flickr.

Typically known as the "Roadless Rule," the 2001 regulation established prohibitions on road construction, timber harvesting and other development in some parts of the National Forest System—so-called "inventoried roadless areas." The appropriations riders would remove this protection from about 15 million acres, encompassing nearly one-quarter of all forest-based inventoried roadless areas in the U.S. 

This could set a precedent of forest-by-forest or state-by-state exemptions, leading to uneconomical road construction in remote, wild forest areas across the U.S. and jeopardizing clean water and unmatched recreational opportunities.  

Stay tuned for more on how we can work to repel this attack in the days ahead. 

Tongass and Chugach national forests are American treasures 

At 16.5 million acres, Tongass National Forest is more than half as big as the entire state of North Carolina. And while the forest is best known for its wide expanses of Sitka spruce, western hemlock and cedar, it is also geologically and climatically diverse enough to accommodate majestic glaciers and icefields. The trees themselves are remarkable for their size and longevity –some up to 800 years old. Over one-third of the Tongass National Forest is designated as federal wilderness, containing habitat for a variety of wildlife, including brown and black bears, mountain goats, black-tailed deer, wolverines, river otters, harbor seals and bald eagles. The forest's waterways also produce 80 percent of the commercial salmon harvested from Southeast Alaska. Bonus fact: Scenes from the 1982 horror/sci-fi film "The Thing" were filmed here. 

While Chugach National Forest is only one-third as large as Tongass National Forest, it is still one of the biggest national forests in the country (almost the size of New Hampshire). Despite lying only about 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Chugach National Forest encompasses a variety of vibrant, living landscapes, including brilliant blue glaciers, wetlands and, naturally, forests. The latter are chiefly made up of mighty Sitka spruce and mountain and western hemlock, providing habitat for moose, bald eagles and other wildlife. Rivers in Chugach National Forest are major salmon producers as well. 

Tongass National Forest's waterways produce 80 percent of the commercial salmon harvested from Southeast Alaska. Credit: Joe Serio (USFS), flickr.

Sen. Murkowski's proposals would open up huge swaths of these forests to industrial-scale logging and road-building, heedless of the careful compromise and flexibility that went into crafting the original Roadless Rule. Additionally, they would prolong the boom-and-bust old-growth-dependent timber industry that, for all its romance and prominence in the American psyche, accounts for only 1% of the region's jobs. Meanwhile, the proposals would threaten the abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery essential to tourism in Southeast Alaska, an industry that contributes more than $1 billion to the region each year and accounts for 15 percent of the region's employment. It would also endanger the region's commercial fishing industry that employs 4,300 people (9 percent of regional employment) and relies on the Tongass National Forest for 80 percent of its salmon harvest

Stay tuned for more on this serious threat and how we can fight back.