The Tongass National Forest sprawls nearly 17 million acres across an archipelago in southeastern Alaska. One of the largest remaining temperate rainforests in the world, it’s home to yawning fjords, moss-draped hemlocks and abundant wildlife, and serves as a magnet for tourism and commercial fishing—two of the region’s largest economic drivers.
Since 2001, a U.S. Forest Service policy known as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule has protected 58.5 million acres of national forests across the U.S., including 9.5 million acres in the Tongass, from road construction, mining and logging. But the Trump administration in October proposed to exempt the Tongass from the rule to make it easier to develop and extract resources from the land.
Supporters of the proposed exemption say it would make it easier for industries to do business. Critics warn that logging and road creation could irreparably harm wildlife and damage the forest, all while contributing very little to southeastern Alaska’s economy.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is expected to make a final decision on the proposal by June 2020. The public can comment on six options—ranging from taking no action to fully exempting Alaska from the Roadless Rule—through Dec. 17.
Tourism and commercial fishing are the two biggest industries in the region. The visitor industry accounted for 23 percent of employment in 2017, according to the Department of Commerce, and nearly one-third of visitor spending in the entire state is done in Southeast Alaska. One in 10 jobs in Alaska is in the tourism industry, according to the state’s Resource Development Council. The wild, untamed stretches of Alaska, including those in the Tongass, are a major part of the state’s allure.
“We have over a million tourists come to Alaska each year, and they’re not coming to see clear-cuts,” said Dan Cannon, Tongass Forest Program Manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a conservation group that opposes the proposal.
Similarly, commercial fishing employs one in 10 people in Southeast Alaska and contributes about $1 billion to the economy annually, according to nonprofit Trout Unlimited.
Logging itself doesn’t necessarily harm fish. What’s dangerous is the resulting soil erosion that pushes new types of sediment into streams. This can can choke fish eggs, said Mark Kaelke, Southeast Alaska program director of Trout Unlimited. Creating roads can be equally harmful because the paths create barriers that block fish from moving among streams, he said. Building culverts can help offset the impact, but Kaelke said they often fail over time as stream beds change.
If the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, the state could begin to develop energy corridors and hydro-projects meant to move diesel-dependent, remote communities to renewable energy sources, said Anthony Mallott, CEO of Sealaska, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation. Mining could also happen on the land, though Mallott said Sealaska doesn’t support it.
Timber harvesting isn’t likely to bring much money or create many new jobs in Alaska, Mallott said. Logging has been on the downturn for years, arguably well before the Roadless Rule was implemented, Cannon said. The industry currently accounts for about 1 percent of the region’s economy.
Logging the Tongass would have an impact beyond Alaska’s economy. Forests annually offset about 16 percent of the U.S.’s climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Tongass stores about 8 percent of the total carbon absorbed by all national forests of the lower 48 states.
If the Tongass is exempted from the Roadless Rule, it won’t necessarily be a free-for-all for industry development. There’s a limit to how many trees can be logged each year in the forest—46 million board feet, to be exact, said Christine Dawe, director of ecosystem management coordination for the U.S. Forest Service. Right now, that 46 million board feet comes from about 1,624 acres of old-growth forest and 534 acres of young-growth forest.
While the number of trees logged wouldn’t exceed the limit placed on tree cutting by the Forest Service, exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule would allow timber harvesting to take place in more parts of the forest. That means more old-growth forest would be susceptible to logging, especially over the next decade. Intact old-growth forest is essential for salmon spawning, deer habitat, carbon storage and tourism.
Cannon is quick to point out that there’s nothing stopping the Forest Service from allowing industry to log more than the limit. It would be an easy change. However, he also notes that the amount of timber harvested hasn’t exceeded the limit in the last several years.
The conversation about how to manage the Tongass has become difficult and binary as people take sides on the issue, Mallott said. Mallott said he’d like to both preserve the forest and see an increase in economic development using the land. However, the Roadless Rule creates barriers.
Exceptions for development can be granted under the existing Roadless Rule, and more than 50 such allowances have been made in Alaska since 2009, for everything from mining to energy projects. But the process can be tedious and create extra costs for companies.
Even so, if the Department of Agriculture moves to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, the forest—and the ecosystem it supports—may pay the biggest price of all.
“This place is not just beautiful to see, but, in terms of the climate crisis, it’s a beautiful carbon life raft that we should be working hard to protect,” Cannon said.
The public has until Dec. 17 to provide a comment on the proposed exemption. There are six courses of action people can comment on. They range from no action to full exemption of the Roadless Rule. The public can comment online or send an email to email@example.com. Comments can also be mailed to the USDA Forest Service at P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802. The Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit partner of REI, also has a portal for public comment, with a form letter for recreationists who oppose exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.