The Tongass National Forest contains 9.2 million acres of roadless areas. Free from vehicle pollution, the forest ecosystem thrives. The old growth trees absorb carbon dioxide. Southeast Alaskans hunt, fish and hike in this incredible place. And nearly 1 million people travel through the area each year.
The Tongass is huge. In total, it covers 17 million acres and features many islands and 11,000 miles of shoreline. Between the old growth trees, marshes, islands and the shore, there are hundreds of species of songbirds, shorebirds and seabirds making their homes in the national forest.
They may not be as obviously critical to the region’s economy as the salmon or such larger animals as whales, which attract tourists, or deer and bears, which attract game hunters. Nevertheless, the birds are a critical part of the ecosystem. Whether catching fish, eating insects or being prey themselves, they are an integral part of the food chain. And birding is a big draw to the region, as there are multiple bird festivals each year.
One species that has become a symbol of the fight to save old growth forests is the marbled murrelet. These small seabirds fish in the ocean during the day with other birds their size. But unlike most seabirds, they usually build their nests in old growth and mature trees, which they fly back to carrying one fish at a time to feed their young.
Arctic terns migrate an astonishing distance from the Arctic to Antarctica each year, making them the critters with the longest migration on Earth. While migrating, they keep to the ocean and, thus, birders have a hard time spotting them. They return to the Arctic, including to the Tongass, each spring to breed and are greeted by the Annual Yakutat Tern Festival, which will enjoy its tenth anniversary in 2021.
Some Golden-crowned kinglets migrate and others seem to remain in the same area year-round. They have been sighted in most of the lower 48 states, where they spend the winters. These tiny woodland songbirds are only 3.5 inches long and many live in the Tongass year-round.
The Tongass National Forest, where you can find these 3 species and hundreds more, is currently threatened by increased logging. In October 2020, the Trump administration removed protection from 9.2 million acres of previously protected roadless areas, opening the wild up for road-building and commercial logging. This industrial activity will disrupt the birds that live in the Tongass. Whether it’s actually chopping down the trees they nest in or creating noise pollution, air pollution and water pollution, it does irreversible harm. As of 2019, there were 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970. That’s a stunning number.
So here’s the thing: When choosing between producing more softwood lumber to be used to create more furniture, flooring or construction (when instead we could be using reclaimed wood and alternative materials like bamboo or just not creating more stuff) versus the loss of nature in a place as wild and vast as the Tongass National Forests, I choose conservation. I choose songbirds.
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.