A view of the Tongass National Forest
The Tongass National Forest surrounds Lake Mendenhall, one of the best known natural features in the Alaska Panhandle (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has moved to restore pro­tec­tion of old-growth forests in South­east Alaska’s vast Ton­gass Nation­al For­est, pro­tec­tion that was stripped away in wan­ing months of the Trump regime.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture will “repeal or replace” a deci­sion that removed the Ton­gass from a Clin­ton-era Road­less Rule that had pro­tect­ed more than nine mil­lion acres of the 16.9 mil­lion-acre nation­al for­est. The nation­al for­est, cre­at­ed under Theodore Roo­sevelt, includes almost all of the Alas­ka Panhandle.

A slice of the Tongass, seen from the Mendenhall Valley
A por­tion of the vast Ton­gass Nation­al For­est, pic­tured at sun­down from a quad­copter fly­ing over the Menden­hall Val­ley (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The Ton­gass is America’s largest tem­per­ate rain­for­est. It was once giv­en over to sup­port­ing two big pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sit­ka, with a third planned for Juneau. Its ancient forests were sold for a pit­tance, with the U.S. For­est Ser­vice real­iz­ing a return of less than five cents on the dollar.

As Tim­o­thy Egan wrote in the New York Times, eight hun­dred year old trees were being sold for the price of a Big Mac.

The tables turned thir­ty years ago. With the Ton­gass Tim­ber Reform Act, Con­gress rolled back an ear­li­er require­ment that four hun­dred and fifty mil­lion board feet of for­est be made avail­able for clear cut­ting each year, with an auto­mat­ic $40 mil­lion appro­pri­a­tion to build the roads to “bring the cut out.”

The Ketchikan and Sit­ka mills, shorn of their cor­po­rate wel­fare, were closed.

Since then, South­east Alas­ka has enjoyed a new econ­o­my built around tourism, recre­ation and the abun­dant salmon runs of such rivers as the Stikine, Taku and Unuk. Until the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit last year, hun­dreds of thou­sands of cruise ship pas­sen­gers vis­it­ed Juneau, Ketchikan and Skag­way each year.

The Trump regime sought to recre­ate the bad old days. After a meet­ing between Trump and Alas­ka Gov­er­nor Mike Dun­leavy on Air Force One last year, the Trump con­trolled USDA enact­ed a new “rule” that pulled back pro­tec­tions in force for twen­ty years under the Clin­ton Road­less Rule. The goal was to resume and expand log­ging of old growth forests in val­ley bot­toms of the Tongass.

The areas imme­di­ate­ly tar­get­ed for cut­ting totaled only 186,000 acres, but includ­ed the biggest trees sup­port­ing the rich­est salmon habi­tat. Much of the Ton­gass con­sists of rocks, ice and forests on no com­mer­cial value.

Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls, locat­ed in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est, emp­ties into Lake Menden­hall (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

“I com­mend the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion for ensur­ing the future of our shared pub­lic lands is based on sci­ence, a legal­ly sound process, and stake­hold­er input,” said Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell (D‑Washington) in a state­ment sent to NPI.

“The fate of one of the world’s last great remain­ing tem­per­ate forests should­n’t be a polit­i­cal deci­sion made on a whim. The salmon runs, car­bon stor­age, and tourism appeal that the Ton­gass cur­rent­ly pro­vides will always be more valu­able to Pacif­ic North­west com­mu­ni­ties than any sub­si­dized log­ging projects.”

Cantwell and fel­low Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Deb­bie Stabenow of Michi­gan pre­vi­ous­ly object­ed to the roll­back last year, lay­ing out the case:

Sci­en­tists have repeat­ed­ly urged main­tain­ing pro­tec­tion for this large­ly intact, tem­per­ate rainforest.

The Ton­gass would right­ly be man­aged as America’s cli­mate for­est because of the Ton­gass’ crit­i­cal capac­i­ty for car­bon stor­age and cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion. The pro­tec­tion of these lands for their con­ser­va­tion val­ue also sup­ports healthy pop­u­la­tions of salmon and oth­er wildlife essen­tial to the peo­ple of the region.

Researchers stud­ied vast 1960s and 1970s clearcuts on Prince of Wales and Chichagof Islands. They found that lit­tle sun­light reach­es the ground beneath dense sec­ond growth stands, and that plants on the for­est floor are sparse.

Such habi­tat does not sup­port Sit­ka black tailed deer, brown bear and oth­er among four hun­dred species of wildlife found in the Tongass.

John Schoen, a long­time sci­en­tist with Alas­ka Fish & Game and Audubon Alas­ka, wrote in his book Ton­gass Odyssey::

“The clear cut­ting of old growth is an archa­ic and unsus­tain­able tim­ber prac­tice. This appraisal was clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed in 2014 when many sci­en­tists – includ­ing two for­mer chiefs of the For­est Ser­vice – wrote the pres­i­dent, request­ing ‘a nation­al old growth con­ser­va­tion pol­i­cy that ful­ly pro­tects the remain­ing old growth on nation­al forests through­out the Unit­ed States’.

“The many sus­tain­able resource uses on the Ton­gass – from sub­sis­tence har­vest­ing of fish and wildlife to com­mer­cial and sport­fish­ing, tourism and out­door recre­ation and car­bon stor­age – are at risk from con­tin­ued log­ging of old growth.”

The reac­tion to Friday’s action by the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion pit­ted back­ers of the old bring-the-cut-out, drill-baby-drill, dig-baby-dig Alas­ka econ­o­my against those cham­pi­oning a sus­tain­able, cli­mate-con­scious future.

“From tourism to tim­ber, Alaska’s great Ton­gass Nation­al For­est holds much oppor­tu­ni­ty for Alaskans, but the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wish­es to see Alaskans suf­fer at the lack of jobs and pros­per­i­ty,” Dun­leavy said in a tweet.

Amy Gulick, author/photographer of “Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alasa’s Ton­gass Rain For­est,” which makes the case that ancient forests are essen­tial to spawn­ing salmon and oth­er liv­ing things, said in an email: “The Ton­gass is a place where there are salmon in the trees – every­thing is still inter­con­nect­ed in this intact ecosys­tem. I am heart­ened to see that the Biden admin­is­tra­tion is show­ing us that it’s pos­si­ble to exer­cise restraint and main­tain the true rich­es of the mag­nif­i­cent Ton­gass rain for­est in Alas­ka for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

The admin­is­tra­tion, under law, will come up with a new pre­lim­i­nary “rule” for the Ton­gass in August, and then seek pub­lic com­ment. When the Trump regime was con­sid­er­ing a roll­back of pro­tec­tion, the vast major­i­ty of com­ments received were in sup­port of main­tain­ing pro­tec­tion of unlogged old growth forest.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has con­front­ed mul­ti­ple Trump actions in Alaska.

The new admin­is­tra­tion has put on hold its predecessor’s fire sale of oil and gas drilling rights in the Arc­tic Refuge.

The sale was a mon­u­men­tal bust, with major oil com­pa­nies declin­ing to bid, and major banks say­ing they would not under­write oil explo­ration in the refuge.

But the new admin­is­tra­tion is sup­port­ing Cono­coPhillips’ big Wil­low oil devel­op­ment project, locat­ed in Alaska’s Nation­al Petro­le­um Reserve just west of the Prud­hoe Bay oil field. It was green light­ed under Trump.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion is also defend­ing the con­tro­ver­sial King Cove Road, designed to link two iso­lat­ed Alas­ka Penin­su­la vil­lages, that would go through the Isem­bek Nation­al Wildlife Refuge.

Con­ser­va­tion groups have nation­al­ized bat­tles over log­ging, min­ing and oil drilling on pub­lic lands in Alas­ka. After all, they’re pub­lic prop­er­ty. A key weapon has been exhib­it-for­mat books pub­lished by Braid­ed Riv­er, a divi­sion of Moun­taineers Books. Under pres­sure from Alaska’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion, the Smithsonian’s Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, moved to a remote cor­ri­dor and cen­sored an exhib­it from Sub­hankar Banerjee’s book “Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge: Sea­sons of Life and Land.” It got him booked at oth­er muse­ums across the country.

Still, Alaska’s Repub­li­can Sen. Lisa Murkows­ki is a piv­otal Sen­ate vote when it comes to such issues as upgrad­ing America’s infra­struc­ture and vot­ing rights. (Native vil­lages are a big source of sup­port for Murkowski.)

The Biden Admin­is­tra­tion gave her some­thing to applaud by back­ing the Wil­low project. But she’s not hap­py at prospec­tive return of the Road­less Rule.

“Alaskans believe the Road­less Rule bur­den­some, unnec­es­sary and since its incep­tion have called for the Ton­gass to be exempt from it,” she said Fri­day in a state­ment. “We need to end this ‘yo-yo’ effect as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Ton­gass are upend­ed every time we have a new President.”

But the Biden administration’s deci­sion means that eight hun­dred year old trees will not be upend­ed with chain­saws, and ecosys­tems left intact.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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