Tongass National Forest: Better days ahead for Alaska’s ancient rainforest?

Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska stands ancient and giant. Encompassing 17 million acres that stretch across thousands of islands and cliffs, including rivers surging with salmon, the Tongass is the nation’s largest national forest and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Its lands provide habitat to hundreds of species, including brown bears, whales, wolves, and bald eagles. And for the people of southeast Alaska, the Tongass provides food, recreation opportunities, and the foundation that keeps cultural richness alive.

The small Native village of Kake, Alaska, is nested in perhaps one of the most beautiful settings, and is the most vibrant community I’ve visited in the Tongass National Forest. Yet local residents struggle with unemployment rates approaching 85%, extremely high energy costs, and other hurdles that make establishing sustainable economic opportunities challenging. That’s why I was very pleased last week when Regional Forester Beth Pendleton announced a new vision for the Tongass and its rural, forest-dependent communities, one that emphasizes sustainable management focusing on natural resources such as the region’s world class fisheries, renewable energy, and restoration forestry.

The Wilderness Society recognizes the important role the timber industry has played in southeast Alaska, yet longstanding conflict over management of the region’s natural resources has resulted in significant economic and ecological costs. Decades of large scale old growth timber harvest have left thousands of acres across the Tongass in need of ecological restoration to improve fish and wildlife habitat and landscape connectivity.

For years, we have worked closely with local communities, Forest Service staff, local mill operators, and our conservation partners to develop a shared vision for the Tongass, and facilitate a transition out of an intense focus on logging old growth timber to management that will simultaneously protect and restore healthy ecosystems while generating jobs.

Kayakers enjoying a day of paddling off of Prince of Wales Island<br />
in Alaska. Photo by Evan Hjerpe.The Forest Service’s new approach for the Tongass embraces many of our collective, collaborative recommendations and is designed to boost economic opportunities while safeguarding the forest’s abundant and unique values. We especially laud the decision to move harvesting into second growth areas where roads have already been built and away from logging old-growth timber roadless areas.

The Wilderness Society looks forward to continuing to work with the Forest Service, communities, and our partners to ensure that the transition will build upon collaborative work to date and utilize the region’s existing assets, both in terms of workforce and natural resources.

Research demonstrates that by investing in a transition, we can:

  • Retain a similar amount of ‘in-the-woods’ jobs as the current timber sale program;
  • Enhance the quantity and quality of salmon, deer, carbon storage and virtually all ecosystem services;
  • Annually restore over 1,000 acres and several miles of degraded streams, decommission outdated roads, and repair numerous culverts.

We commend the visionary leadership and focus on solutions that bring stakeholders together as opposed to continuing the polarizing conflict of the past. This welcome shift is needed to achieve long-term economic stability as well as to conserve the subsistence, ecological, cultural and aesthetic values of this great forest. Together with other partners in the community, The Wilderness Society will help ensure that the Tongass remains both a wild and primeval forest and provides economic opportunities for rural communities in the 21st century and beyond.

While we celebrate this huge step forward, we are also working to prevent legislation in the U.S. Congress that would open thousands of the Tongass' biologically rich acres to intensive logging. Under the legisation, the land would go to the Sealaska Corporation, a native corporation that has already harvested 189,000 acres in the Tongass.

Sunset over the town of Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Photo by Gareth Mayhead.
Kayakers enjoying a day of paddling off of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Photo by Evan Hjerpe.