Alaskans are blessed with some of the wildest, most biologically prolific forests on the planet. Nowhere else is this more evident than the Tongass rainforest, the crown jewel of the national forest system. Unfortunately, the State of Alaska announced plans to team up with the Trump Administration to open up millions of acres to logging and road-based developments. This ill-conceived proposal would degrade the region’s pristine character and the foundation of a robust outdoor economy.
The Roadless Conservation Rule of 2001 protected over 58 million acres of the nation’s most remote places. It was the premier conservation achievement of its time that took years of careful deliberation, an unprecedented number of public meetings, over 1 million strongly (more than 95 percent) supportive public comments, and the backing of hundreds of scientists, all of who wanted the Tongass included.
While the Roadless Rule protects intact areas larger than 5,000 acres from logging, it has numerous allowances to include road connections between communities and other state highway projects, access to mining claims under the Mining Law of 1872, and access to utility corridors and hydropower projects. Some 55 projects within roadless areas in Alaska have been rapidly approved by the Forest Service. The Roadless Rule therefore is working in Alaska and plans to gut it are misguided.
Because of this new threat, a collection of 87 conservation, recreation, fishing, and other groups sent a letter to Secretary Perdue opposing the rollbacks. In 2016, the Tongass Advisory Committee, made up of regional industries, conservation groups and Alaska Native Corporations, provided input to the Forest Service to transition the Tongass out of old-growth logging. They also recommended roadless area protections. Overturning the Roadless Rule would undermine years of collaborative progress and public support.
Roadless areas bolster fish and wildlife populations
The Tongass is the national champion of roadless areas with 9 million acres, which is 15 percent of the national total. Two-thirds of the Tongass is roadless, the only national forest in the nation still relatively intact.
Free of development, Tongass roadless areas allow salmon to replenish populations. They provide habitat for deer, wolves, bears and other wildlife sensitive to development. And they help regulate Alaska’s rapidly changing climate. For instance, Tongass intact forests store more atmospheric carbon than any forest in the nation. Cutting them down and building roads would release most of the stored carbon as global warming pollution. Alaska is already experiencing the nation’s biggest temperature increases, a 3-degree F rise since 1949. This comes with severe long-term consequences evident by melting glaciers and the massive die-off of Alaska yellow cedar.
Building roads into an intact forest jump starts a death-by-thousand cuts. Roads fragment wildlife habitat into small, isolated parcels that then contribute to declining deer populations, as is currently the case on the heavily roaded Prince of Wales Island. Sediment runoff, especially from roads and logging on steep slopes, chokes salmon spawning beds.
Roadless areas bolster the regional economy
Wild places are the backbone of the southeast Alaska economy. According to the Forest Service, many of Alaska’s nearly 2 million annual visitors come to the Tongass to hunt, fish and recreate, while spending over $350 million annually. The visitor industry contributes nearly $4 billion to the Southeast Alaska economy and provides some 7,752 jobs. The Tongass also produces some 40 percent of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery worth an estimated $414 million in 2015. While all jobs are important to Alaskans, jobs in mining (792) and logging (277) pale by comparison.
Conversely, timber road construction on the Tongass costs $250,000 per mile, which is why the Tongass old-growth logging program is completely dependent on millions of dollars in annual subsidizes paid by taxpayers that unknowingly bankroll controversial old-growth logging projects.
Efforts to undermine the Roadless Rule by revising or amending the Tongass Forest Plan should be summarily rejected as divisive. The Roadless Rule already is working in Alaska supporting the regional economy, allowing the kinds of development that local people want, and holding together a verdant rainforest that is unique globally. The Tongass needs to rapidly transition out of old-growth logging, a return to roadless logging is a needless distraction.
• Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D, Chief Scientist, Geos Institute, Ashland, Oregon, is co-author and editor of the award-winning “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation;” John Schoen, Ph.D., Retired Wildlife Ecologist, Anchorage, is co-author and co-editor of North Pacific Temperate Rainforests. John Talberth, Ph.D., is Senior Economist at Center for Sustainable Economy, which has provided technical support for conservation initiatives in Alaska for over 20 years.