Chances are you’ve recently heard of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and the political fisticuffs about what to do with it. The issue is the Trump administration’s proposed rule making to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, a Clinton administration regulation that prohibited road construction and timber harvesting on nearly 60 million acres of National Forest lands. In Southeast Alaska, the Roadless Rule has effectively preserved the Country’s largest National Forest and the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. However, the Roadless Rule went into effect after half of the region’s forests were clear cut.
The importance of preserving the Tongass National Forest cannot be overstated: “one third of Alaska’s salmon harvest each year comes from fish produced in the 17,000 miles of streams in Southeast’s Tongass rainforest,” which is largely attributable to the Roadless Rule’s protections. Yet, the public now has until December 17th to express their opposition to this rulemaking and preserve the Tongass National Forest. Comments can be submitted here.
The Tongass National Forest was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. Then in the 1950s, industrial logging operations ramped up in the Tongass and began causing damage, specifically on the old growth forests, which are of significant environmental importance. The logging was fueled by federal subsidies and the two 50-year contracts for 13.5 billion board feet of timber or, in another metric, 1.7 million acres of forest. After years of harmful old growth logging in the Tongass and many legal challenges, the Tongass received protection through the Roadless Rule.
For nearly two decades, the Roadless Rule has helped preserve millions of acres across the country from the degrading ecological effects of development and logging. The protection of inventoried roadless areas, such as half of the Tongass, allow for flourishing biodiversity, connected and natural habitats, and contribute to healthy watersheds.
Habitat is one of the most significant factors impacting the health of salmon and steelhead, and logging can have profoundly negative effects on fish habitats. Logging operations have been directly shown to adversely affect watershed quality and salmon habitat. This is why the Roadless Rule has been so important for the preservation of the Southeast Alaska ecosystems.
The Roadless Rule effectively blocked the harmful old growth logging activities in this essential salmon habitat, and it also prevented further development of logging roads with its own myriad of negative effects. Roads and other infrastructure facilitate continued and expanded resource extraction, and exacerbates the original threats. Roads also pose serious threats to salmon and their habitats because they can act as a barrier, hindering salmon spawning activities.
Today, however, the Trump administration is actively attacking the Tongass National Forest, the efficacy of the Roadless Rule, and the wildlife that depend on the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
This Summer, the Trump administration weighed in on the issue, indicating its support for removing the Roadless Rule protections from the Tongass. There has also been some controversy about the timing of this decision, as it came after a private meeting between President Trump and Alaskan Governor Mike Dunleavy. In any event, however, the administration continued its attack on the Roadless Rule, when on October 15, 2019, it announced it would propose opening up half of the Tongass National Forest to logging.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 585 page Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Rulemaking for Alaska Roadless Areas. The USDA outlined six alternatives for the Tongass’ Roadless Rule. These alternatives ranged from Alternative 1 (No Action Alternative) to Alternative 6 (Preferred Alternative). It should come of no surprise–given the Administration’s track record on environmental issues–but the Preferred Alternative removes Roadless Rule protections from all previously protected 9.2 million acres.
As always, there are many disputing viewpoints surrounding this issue. There are Alaska’s elected officials who advocate for an exemption from the Roadless Rule, and there are the majority of Southeast Alaskans who support the Roadless Rule. Those who advocate for removing the Roadless protections from the Tongass base their position on assisting the timber industry and bringing more jobs and economic prosperity to Alaska. However, this position is misguided. In Southeast Alaska, the timber industry employs 337 jobs with economic earnings of $18.8 million. To be clear: yes, the industry has been burdened by the Roadless Rule, but market forces and legal issues also challenge the industry. On the other hand, the same report found the visitor and seafood industries accounted for 11,715 annual jobs and over $300 million in earnings for Southeast Alaska.
When 26 percent of Southeast Alaska’s jobs depend on beautiful, functioning ecosystems, the rationale for opposing the Trump administration’s proposed plan for the Tongass becomes clear. Why jeopardize this sustainable economy and the highly productive salmon and steelhead rearing habitat for an industry that would have negative impacts on those economic drivers? That is the question Alaskans and other stakeholders will have to weigh in on.
Biologists have known for years the ecological benefits salmon bring to headwaters. However, we are now realizing the economic benefits and opportunities salmon bring to communities–actual people. In Southeast Alaska, for example, commercial, recreational and subsistence salmon fisheries were valued at $986 million. The Tongass watersheds produce roughly 50 million salmon, but 6 percent of streams in the Tongass have been affected by timber and roadbuilding activities, according to a Forest Service Factsheet.
The Tongass National Forest is home to some the highest densities of black and brown bears in the world. 25 percent of all salmon harvested in commercial fisheries come from the Tongass National Forest. The amount and diversity of wildlife in the Tongass is truly remarkable, but these species and habitats are threatened by logging. Additionally, these old growth timber stands act as “carbon sinks,” which will be even more important as climate change continues to affect the planet.
And, the fishing in the Tongass’ 15,000 miles of anadromous streams is out of this world. Trout Unlimited had this to say, “If you want to catch a very large steelhead in a very small stream, there’s probably no better place on the planet to do so than Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.” Unless we show our support for the Roadless Rule in the Tongass and our desire to one day fish the prolific runs of salmon and steelhead, the Tongass may be lost. Time and time again the Trump administration ignores reason and public support; hopefully the Tongass ends that trend. You can also help end that trend. To submit a public comment on this proposed rulemaking, follow this link!
For more on the Tongass and its threats, be sure to check out America’s Salmon Forest!
This article was written by Flylords’ Conservation Editor, Will Poston.