The Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, containing nearly 17 million acres of old-growth trees, towering mountains, lush coastlines, and healthy populations of fish and wildlife. These lands and waters support the ways of life of Southeast Alaska’s diverse communities, including its 19 federally-recognized Lingít, Haida, and Tsimshian Alaska Native Tribes. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

The Tongass National Forest is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, containing nearly 17 million acres of old-growth trees, towering mountains, lush coastlines, and healthy populations of fish and wildlife. These lands and waters support the ways of life of Southeast Alaska’s diverse communities, including its 19 federally-recognized Lingít, Haida, and Tsimshian Alaska Native Tribes. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Resilient Peoples and Place: Revising the Tongass Forest Plan

A conversation with U.S. Forest Service Deputy Supervisor Barbara Miranda

What has changed in Southeast Alaska over the last 27 years? This is one of the driving questions for the U.S. Forest Service as they revise the plan that shapes how the agency makes decisions on the Tongass National Forest. The way that our communities live and work on this landscape have changed over the past three decades. Southeast Alaska has transitioned over the years from pulp mills and large-scale old-growth logging being the region’s main economic driver to a more diversified economy that includes tourism, small-fleet fishing, a burgeoning recreation industry, and more.

“The only constant in Southeast Alaska is the people who have lived here and stewarded this place since time immemorial,” reflects Barbara Miranda, the Tongass’ deputy forest supervisor for the Forest Service. Miranda is currently overseeing the revision of the Tongass Forest Plan, which was last revised in 1997. She says the Tongass is due for an update.

From changes in berry seasons and salmon runs, to droughts challenging community hydropower systems, and extreme rain events increasing landslide frequency, climate change is influencing the landscape we know and love. As the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, the Tongass’ role as a carbon sink is increasingly important.

“When it comes to what’s changed since 1997, one major thing is our knowledge about the impacts that climate change is having on Southeast Alaska’s ecosystems and communities,” notes Miranda. “We didn’t have anything about climate change in the old version of the forest plan, and we need to incorporate the best knowledge we have into the plan now.”

Barbara Miranda, the Tongass’ Deputy Forest Supervisor for the USDA Forest Service. Miranda is currently overseeing the revision of the Tongass Forest Plan. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Barbara Miranda, the Tongass’ Deputy Forest Supervisor for the USDA Forest Service. Miranda is currently overseeing the revision of the Tongass Forest Plan. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

In the old plan, the knowledge influencing the plan would have been limited to Western scientific input, but this time the Forest Service wants to ensure they’re also making the time and space to incorporate the best local and traditional ecological knowledge they can.

“There’s a comprehensive nature to this process,” says Miranda. “On paper, it sounds like a small thing, but it’s much more than just a revision to a government document. If we do this process right, the people who live in Southeast Alaska can help us meaningfully shape the future of the Tongass.”

As the Forest Service kicks off a multi-year engagement effort around the plan, we sat down to speak with Miranda about why the forest plan is so important and how people across the region — and beyond — can get involved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with a little bit about yourself: can you introduce yourself and share what your role is at the Forest Service?

My name is Barbara Miranda, I’m one of two deputy forest supervisors here on the Tongass National Forest under a shared leadership model with my fellow Deputy Forest Supervisor Clint Kolarich and Forest Supervisor Frank Sherman. I’ve worked for the Forest Service since I was 19 years old, so I have spanned quite a career with the USDA. I moved to Southeast Alaska in 2007, when my family had an opportunity to live in Gustavus. Landing in Southeast Alaska surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park and the Tongass National Forest was a godsend as a parent. I loved, loved having the ability to raise my children here.

Can you explain what the Tongass Forest Plan is and the kinds of impacts it has for Southeast Alaska?

The Tongass Forest Plan is the foundation for every decision made by the USDA Forest Service on the forest. My analogy for the forest plan is that it’s like a zoning document for the Tongass where there’s a different management focus for each zone. That’s essentially what the forest plan does: it designates management areas with a focus on different types of activities.

The plan offers a high-level view of what types of activities should take place and where. For example, it doesn’t include the level of detail of particular trails or cabins, but more generally it dictates what areas are managed for recreation versus other activities. We’re also asking, “What kind of economic and cultural benefits should the Tongass provide for the communities of Southeast Alaska?” If you’re a hunter, you might want to make sure that the area where you hunt is zoned to create better deer habitat. If you fish, perhaps you want that zone to benefit fish quality through restoration activities. If you recreate, there’s a zoning plan to designate the types of recreation activities that can occur where. If you are passionate about traditional practices and harvesting, we can designate areas for subsistence and the cultural uses, such as red and yellow cedar.

Through the feedback we get in this process, we can make sure we’re managing those areas in an appropriate way. We can also provide guidelines and constraints on those uses, for example how much timber can be harvested in certain areas in order to sustain the ecological and economic impact that zone provides.

The Forest Plan offers a high level view of what types of activities should take place and where on the Tongass, including what areas can be managed to prioritize deer habitat. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

The Forest Plan offers a high level view of what types of activities should take place and where on the Tongass, including what areas can be managed to prioritize deer habitat. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Can you tell me more about why the forest plan is being updated now?

The last full iteration of the Tongass Forest Plan was written in 1997 when we were looking at the end of the pulp mill era. Since then we’ve made targeted amendments focused on the wood products industry, including a 2016 amendment that focused on the need to transition to young growth. Still, so much has changed that we need to account for in this plan — for example, how is climate change affecting the state of the rainforest and oceans? How are these changes affecting people’s ability to subsist and practice traditional ways of life here? We also haven’t looked at tourism on the Tongass in a comprehensive plan since 1997, so this is an opportunity to share your opinion about what you know about tourism on the Tongass.

What we want to do now is much more holistic than a targeted amendment. As an agency, we want to respond to the changed conditions that exist in Southeast Alaska now. We want to hear from the people who live here about what they want us to prioritize on the Tongass. We also want to create a plan that’s transformational and based on what’s possible in our future.

What is the timeframe for the Forest Service in this process? What type of community input and participation is helpful to inform revisions to the forest plan? Who can participate in this process?

The Tongass belongs to everyone, and everyone is encouraged to participate. We’re currently in what the Forest Service calls the “assessment phase” of this process. It’s the first chapter in this process, but it’s an important chapter; this is the time when we are reaching out to gather all different kinds of community knowledge to shape how we revise the forest plan. We started this process in March by hosting ongoing public Forest Service webinars to share about the different parts of the Forest Plan process. In April, we are hosting over 20 in-person community workshops across the region. At these workshops, we’ll share about the Forest Plan, give everyone the opportunity to share their feedback on what should go into this revision and answer questions. There is no official commenting period, but we are taking input during this time, including through an online survey form. From there we’ll take the input to develop a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that we’re projecting to have completed in 2025, with public review processes happening after that over the next few years.

Right now — and throughout this year — the people of Southeast Alaska have an opportunity to help guide the scope of the plan by sharing how they want the Tongass to be managed. What priorities and values should guide us? We are at the tip of the iceberg in this process and are open to receive input in any way people want to provide it. We want this plan to include the best scientific knowledge, the best Indigenous knowledge, input from Southeast Alaska’s communities, elders, youth, and ensure that this input is valued similarly. We want a plan we are all proud of, and that will help guide better management and care of the Tongass long into the future.

The Tongass Forest Plan designates areas for a variety of economic, ecological, and cultural uses, such as the uses of red and yellow cedar. Red and yellow cedar is a highly valued commercial species and a crucial resource for Alaska Native cultural heritage and artwork. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

The Tongass Forest Plan designates areas for a variety of economic, ecological, and cultural uses, such as the uses of red and yellow cedar. Red and yellow cedar is a highly valued commercial species and a crucial resource for Alaska Native cultural heritage and artwork. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

During past Forest Service public input processes, like the latest roadless rulemaking processes, many individuals and tribal governments expressed that they did not feel listened to and that their input was ignored. How are you working to repair trust?

Coming into this process we are conscious about some of the trust we’ve lost and harm we have caused from past efforts. With that acknowledgement, there comes the opportunity to have transparent, frank dialogue about what needs to happen in order to continue to build relationships with the communities and tribes here in Southeast Alaska. As an agency, we are trying to listen differently, and with that comes relationship and trust-building. We started that with the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy and our commitment to engage more meaningfully with tribes and communities.

We’re trying to bring this relationship component from the Sustainability Strategy into the engagement for the forest plan. We might be a federal agency, but we are also neighbors that live in these communities and care about what happens on the Tongass. We want to acknowledge the mistakes we have made in the past as an agency, and reach out in a way that requires us to listen differently than how we have in the past.

The target outcome of this multi-year process is a land management plan that reflects the priorities, needs, and realities of the environment and people of Southeast Alaska. We want to recognize that how that outcome is built, how we work with communities, source and vet feedback, will be fluid and done in relationship to the people and tribal governments of Southeast Alaska we are working to build trust with.

Can you speak to how this revision process is actively seeking to better integrate the input of tribal governments and citizens as well as public input more generally?

We want to flip the script on how we engage with the public this time. We are taking the lessons we learned from the Sustainability Strategy outreach to influence the forest plan revision by asking questions and really listening to local leadership. By doing this, we can find ways to build a plan together that truly supports and uplifts the quality of life here in Southeast Alaska.

For outreach on the forest plan we are partnering with the community development institution Spruce Root and the Juneau Economic Development Council to help us think outside the box around engagement. We’re cognizant that as a federal agency we will still have to do some of the same things we always do, but by engaging with an organization like Spruce Root we can do some things differently. I think Southeast Alaskans will notice the difference as we rollout our community workshops in April.

We often hear, “You’ve asked us these questions before, how is this different?” I can’t say we’re not going to run into that again; it’s still the same forest and some of the same questions are still going to be asked. We recognize that everyone’s time is precious and want to reduce redundancies as much as we can. We are going to take existing information and feedback we already know and have received, like input from Sustainability Strategy outreach, and incorporate that into this first phase of the revision process as much as we can.

Participants of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership retreat in Sitka sourcing input and feedback for an updated Forest management plan. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Participants of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership retreat in Sitka sourcing input and feedback for an updated Forest management plan. (Bethany Goodrich / Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Can you explain how the work of partnerships like the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) has influenced the USFS’ approach to management on the Tongass?

I think that when you look at the Southeast Sustainability Strategy, we shouldn’t be surprised that the announcement and commitments looked similar to what the SSP has been striving for: ecological, cultural, and environmental sustainability. Clearly, the SSP’s voice was heard by USDA higher-ups, and I feel really fortunate to help guide that from the agency side and follow the lead of the collective forces in Southeast Alaska. I appreciate being in spaces with tribal leaders who remind us that when Indigenous communities are healthy, all of Southeast Alaska is healthy, and when our lands are healthy, then we are all thriving. Those values and the ability of the SSP to build bridges where conflict occurred have allowed the Forest Service to move in that same direction. There will always be disagreements about how some of these places are managed. However, when we start building common ground and a collective understanding of what we are working for, and focus on the places where we do agree, then we can move into building a healthier forest. I believe we’re really fortunate in Southeast Alaska to have the SSP creating spaces for these conversations and helping connect people and build relationships.

Can you explain why you are pulling in Spruce Root for this effort, what does this relationship look like, and how will it help the revision process for Southeast Alaskans?

We are really grateful that Spruce Root has stepped in this space with us. Spruce Root is a trusted voice, we’ve funded their navigation and backbone structure for the SSP through Sustainability Strategy investments. Their organization’s relationships and ability to navigate different spaces is a strength that will help us in this Forest Plan engagement. I think we’re all cognizant of the risk they are taking by partnering with a federal agency. It’s gracious of them to support us as we are trying to build and rebuild trust.

What excites you most about this new revision?

I’m honestly super excited about this process. It’s our opportunity to solidify the values of Southeast Alaskans into a plan that will live on for decades. I’m excited about the unknown aspect of it, and the opportunity to incorporate community-generated ideas. If we get this right, folks will understand during this process that they can help shape the future of the Tongass by providing meaningful input into the plan, and I’m pretty confident through our work with Spruce Root and the SSP that we’re creating spaces where people can provide input in meaningful ways.

In April 2024, the USDA Forest Service is hosting community workshops across the region on the Forest Plan revision – you can learn more here. Input can also be shared through their online survey form. For more information, contact Erin Mathews, Revision Plan Coordinator at erin.mathews@usda.gov.

• Ryan Morse is a writer, artist, and storyteller based in Sheet’ká Ḵwáan Sitka. He currently works as the Communications Director for the Sitka Conservation Society. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.

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