Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest, supports robust populations of large black and brown bears, Sitka blacktail deer, moose, and mountain goats. The area’s salmon fishing is justifiably famous, and its streams provide the last bastion of our native steelhead. As much as I would like to be writing about those wildlife resources again, this time around the focus is on politics.
In what is surely a loss for hunters and anglers in this long-running battle, almost 9 million acres of America’s largest national forest may soon see a large increase in logging and road development.
The forest was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. After passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act in 1990, the U.S. Forest Service began developing a new travel plan for the area. In 2001, the Clinton Administration issued the Roadless Area Conservation Policy, commonly known as the Roadless Rule, which banned new road construction on previously undeveloped national forest lands across the country, including on 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. New clear-cut logging stopped, and years of controversy and litigation followed.
Under pressure from the timber industry, new federal policy exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in 2003. Over the next decade, multiple court cases alternately upheld and overturned application of the rule to the Tongass. In 2016, the Supreme Court effectively upheld roadless by declining to review a lower court ruling that the exemption was illegal. No new roads were built in the Tongass, and most of its wilderness character remained intact—for the time being.
In August 2019, President Trump instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to reinstate the exemption, at the behest of Alaska’s Governor (who faced a recall petition) and the state’s Congressional delegation. Most of the public felt otherwise, as surveys consistently showed overwhelming support for maintaining roadless status in the Tongass. This support does not just reflect preservationist activism originating outside Alaska, as a large portion of local residents are opposed to overturning the Roadless Rule. My last article on this topic includes details of the many economic reasons behind that support for maintaining the rule in the Tongass. Commercial fishing is now the region’s leading economic driver, and tourism and outdoor recreation had become business mainstays in Southeast Alaska. All of these interests depend upon an intact, pristine Tongass ecosystem, especially clear streams to support salmon runs and old growth forest.
Analysis of prior decades of clear-cut logging showed that government subsidies to the timber industry cost taxpayers far more money than they generated. The push to open new areas to clear-cutting is driven by the high economic value of old growth timber, which also happen to be the least replaceable trees. Foresters have identified abundant second growth timber that can be harvested from roads that already exist. Another 5.7 million acres of federally-designated wilderness areas in the Tongass will remain off limits to roads and logging.
On September 24, 2020, the U.S. Forest Service announced its intention to grant exemption to the ban on development in the roadless areas of the Tongass. They continued to take public comments for another 30 days, but given that over 90% of previous comments supported leaving this old growth timber and the wildlife resources it supports as is, I remain skeptical about anything meaningful coming from this process. This is a devastating outcome to those of us who have hunted deer or bears in the Tongass or fished its streams.
Currently, development projects threaten three large parcels of Alaska habitat crucially important to hunters and anglers: The Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay region, oil and gas drilling on the Coastal Plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and clear-cutting in the Tongass. Previous administrations had kept all three areas off-limits to development with strong support from the public, especially hunters and anglers. It now appears likely that we have lost the battle in the Tongass. Perhaps if sportsmen and women can remain alert and lobby even harder, we’ll do better next time.
Feature image by Bryan Gregson.