The Tongass National Forest is a “wondrous world of mountains, ice fields, tidewater glaciers, rock-ribbed fjords, coastal brown bears, bald eagles,” with “mighty conifers up to 10 feet in diameter and 800 years old,” wearing “long beards of lichen and moss” that “drip with rain.” John Muir was among the early advocates for preserving it. Teddy Roosevelt declared it a national forest — America’s largest, at 17 million acres — in 1907.
But why are people from California to Texas to Maine so passionate about a forest in remote southern Alaska? Much of that passion is owed to the fact that some places stir the imagination and therefore, the soul. People also understand intuitively that the campaign to save the Tongass is about something larger than even that vast forest: It’s about what we value as a society.
To understand why, we have to go back to the late 1990s. For years, the U.S. Forest Service had not only allowed but encouraged logging and mining in America’s national forests. More than 100 million acres of national forests — more than half the total acreage — had been developed.
The state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) — which had not yet spun off their environmental campaigns to form Environment America and the affiliated state environmental groups — went to work to protect the nation’s remaining wild forests. Our bedrock principle? If a place is still wild, it should stay that way. No more roads, no more logging; let wild places, such as the large swaths of the Tongass that have stood untouched for hundreds of years, remain undeveloped for hundreds more. Or longer.
Along with the Heritage Forest Campaign, a coalition of environmentalists, scientists, religious leaders and outdoors enthusiasts, we called on the Forest Service to implement a rule ending road-building in heretofore roadless areas of our national forests. Public comments submitted on the Forest Service’s draft plan numbered 1.6 million, a record that stood until 2019. Of those, nearly half were the result of PIRG grassroots advocacy.
In January 2001, we won. The Clinton administration created the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, effectively ending road-building, logging, mining and drilling on 58.5 million acres of wild land — including 9.2 million acres within the Tongass.
In the years that followed, opponents and supporters of the Roadless Rule clashed in the courts, in state legislatures and in Washington, D.C. Legal challenges delayed the implementation of the rule by nearly two years; then, the Bush administration attempted to replace it with a weaker substitute, and temporarily exempted the Tongass from its protections. Supporters of the Roadless Rule went to court, got the original rule reinstated and the Tongass protected. The state of Alaska appealed the latter decision all the way to the Supreme Court (which ultimately declined to hear the case). Meanwhile, conservation-minded members of Congress sought to pass legislation to give the Roadless Rule the full force of law.
That’s where we stand now: Still fighting to keep the wild parts of the Tongass wild.
It’s easy for us to understand why a place like the Tongass should remain wild. But if we try, we can also understand where opponents of the Roadless Rule are coming from. The Tongass represents a wealth of timber resources ripe for extraction — extraction that will mean jobs and income for neighboring communities. And while there’s an economic upside the other way — healthy salmon runs and tourism rely on a healthy, wild forest — there’s no denying that jobs such as those in the timber industry tend to shape the character of communities — even people who have never picked up a chainsaw in their life identify with logging as the work that defines a place. The pull of that sense of identity is strong.
Pulling in the opposite direction is another strain with its own strong tradition in American life and thought: The desire to preserve and restore the wild natural beauty of our country. For a long time, most people thought wilderness was to be tamed, not preserved. But we’re long past the frontier days when our survival depended on our ability to extract every resource from the land around us. The timber we’d get from the Tongass we could get elsewhere, or find a way to do without. While the short-term gains of logging the Tongass are real, we have a surplus of alternatives for the products we need, including recycling, reuse, upcycling and simply using less.
And on the other side of the ledger, we risk losing more than a few acres of very old trees. Our planet is running short on nature, and the number of places that remain truly pristine is dwindling. The Tongass is one of the largest and last places we have that remains more or less untouched.
If you know this place, with its ancient trees and vibrant wildlife — even from a distance — you can see it is worth preserving. Once you understand this, it becomes easier to see that all places like this are worth preserving — which is the principle behind the Roadless Rule. And once you understand this, it’s easier to see the world in a new light: one in which we no longer view a forest as timber to be extracted, but as a place that has a greater value that can’t be measured in board-feet or dollars or jobs.