Wild Areas In Largest National Forest Under Attack

By Steve Blackledge
Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign

In the United States, we know and love our national parks. The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains — the list goes on.

Our national forests, while not household names, also hold a special place in our imagination. As evidence, a record breaking 1.6 million of us submitted public comments to the Clinton administration when it was considering a rule to protect the wildest places in our national forests.

The administration finalized the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in 2001. The concept was simple: areas untouched by logging and road-building should stay that way, i.e. wild.

The Tongass National Forest. Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service

But now Alaska Gov. Bill Walker doesn’t want to play by the rule. He has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open a new rulemaking process to exempt the Tongass National Forest from protection under the Roadless Rule.

Environment America has joined with more than 90 other organizations to oppose his petition.

What’s at stake? Encompassing 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S. and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. It’s a land of ancient trees, with space for black and brown bears, wolves, bald eagles, moose, deer, and other wildlife to live and roam free.

In the words of the Forest Service: “the Tongass is a place filled with islands and salmon streams, where towering mountains sweep down into thick old-growth forest and granite cliffs drop into deep fjords.”

Ecologically, the Tongass has a lot going on, and in a world with lots of stuff but not enough nature, it’s our job to protect it.

The Tongass National Forest. Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service

Logging is at the heart of the matter, and in the Tongass, it’s an especially bum deal for American taxpayers. Here’s what Tracy Coppola of EarthJustice writes:

“Given its remote location, logging in the region is extremely unprofitable. Road construction and maintenance in the Tongass is a massive expense for taxpayers. The Roadless Rule was adopted in large part to help control a multi-billion-dollar road maintenance backlog. From 2008 through 2013, the Forest Service spent $139.1 million for timber sales in the Tongass that brought returns of only $8.6 million. In short, taxpayers are losing 93 cents for every dollar spent selling ancient Tongass trees.”

Our argument, then, combines a powerful one-two punch: we need to protect special places and we shouldn’t waste tax dollars. As persuasive as this argument should be, it may not be enough. Alaska’s petition is to the Trump administration, which consistently has favored extraction over preservation.

We need to stay vigilant. A record number of us weighed in on the creation of the Roadless Rule. Americans who value our wild forests, especially those too young to remember the Roadless fight from 2001, must be ready to weigh in this time as well.