These are times that test our patience. Obvious, right? So is the subject of this essay. And yet, it bears saying, and repeating, precisely because of the times we find ourselves in. So thanks to Mr. Heacox for saying so and to Yale e360 for publishing it:
At 17 million acres, Alaska’s Tongass is the largest U.S. national forest and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Now, the Trump administration wants to resume large-scale logging in the Tongass, one of several initiatives threatening some of Alaska’s wildest lands.
When the railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman fell ill from stress and too much work, his doctors recommended that he take a sea cruise. Unable to do anything in a small way, Harriman filled a ship with America’s foremost scientists, artists, and writers, and sailed the coast of Alaska for two months in the summer of 1899.
The expedition, which also included the renowned preservationists John Muir and George Bird Grinnell, found two Alaskas wherever they went, one for the taking, one for the saving. Each at odds with the other. Foremost among the places for saving was the great coastal rainforest of the Southeast Alaska panhandle, a wondrous world of mountains, ice fields, tidewater glaciers, rock-ribbed fjords, coastal brown bears, bald eagles, and 11,000 miles of shoreline.
Eight years later, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt took a bold step in that direction by creating the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States. Today, the Tongass contains two national monuments and 19 designated wilderness areas. It also has countless undammed rivers and streams, and some of the world’s last great runs of wild Pacific salmon.
Dominated by Sitka spruce and Western hemlock — mighty conifers up to 10 feet in diameter and 800 years old — the Tongass represents the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Many of the great trees wear long beards of lichen and moss, and drip with rain, and echo the calls of ravens and the liquid songs of hermit and Swainson’s thrushes.
Ecologists today call the Tongass the Amazon of America.
And for good reason. It’s under serious threat.
The Trump administration has announced its intention to open more than half of the Tongass — 9.5 million forested acres — to development. First roads, and then most anything after that: clear-cuts, dams, lodges, etc. To do this, the U.S. Forest Service must exempt the Tongass from a key conservation initiative, known as the Roadless Rule, which in 2001 banned new roads on nearly 60 million acres of untouched national forest lands in 39 states.
The Forest Service recently held hearings in communities through Southeast Alaska, and took testimony. Most attendees saw it for what it was: a dog and pony show. Six alternatives ranged from number one, keeping the Roadless Rule in place, to number six, which would once again open the Tongass for business.
Trump’s proposed assault on the Tongass is just one of several administration initiatives to open large parts of Alaska’s wilderness to development. The administration wrapped oil drilling in the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into a disastrous budget bill. The Pebble Mine project, a massive proposed open-pit gold and copper mine in Southwest Alaska, was considered dead after the Obama administration ruled that it posed too grave a threat to the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon — an astonishing 62 million fish last year — in nearby Bristol Bay. Now, however, the project is rising again as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled it will not oppose Pebble Mine, leaving the decision up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an agency with a dismal environmental record.
Alaska and the Tongass have long faced such threats.
Soon after Teddy Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest, Puget Sound timbermen in Washington State set their sights on the big trees, just a boat ride away to the north. As he watched federally protected lands across the U.S. come under threat, John Muir noted: “Nothing dollarable is safe.”
At first, timbering in the Tongass was small scale. But as the decades rolled by, and more roads appeared as tall trees disappeared, the battle intensified. Twenty years ago, during the Clinton presidency, 1.6 million people responded to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed “Roadless Rule.” In 600 public hearings and in written comments, more than 95 percent said they favored the rule for no more new roads in undisturbed national forests. Our national forests — already fragmented by hundreds of thousands of miles of roads that opened the way for everything from clear-cut logging to dams to recreation to mining and grazing — needed a break. The people had spoken. Trees had more value standing than felled.
In 2001, the Forest Service enacted the Roadless Rule. The Tongass, already the victim of extensive logging that in some places had cleared entire islands, valleys, and mountainsides of trees, finally achieved the protection it deserved.
My little town of Gustavus, Alaska — reachable only by boat or plane — sits across Icy Strait from Chichagof Island, one of the largest islands in the Tongass. When I first came here 40 years ago, I learned to sea kayak, catch salmon, and make room for bears. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. This land nurtures my neighbors and me, and we defend it. At the Gustavus hearing, 100 percent of the attendees opposed opening the Tongass to logging and other development.
I remember the passage of the Roadless Rule as if it were a renaissance, a time of light and hope. I remember fisherfolk (commercial, sport, and subsistence), deer hunters, berry pickers, Native elders and their clans, kayak guides, poets, politicians, artists, parents, children, and many others celebrating. We could once again walk into our favorite forest — one that’s pristine, its salmon streams clean — without worrying about one day losing it. Much of the Tongass remained intact. Our forest would be here to stay…
Read the whole essay here.