Fog drifts through the trees in the Tongass National Forest on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Fog drifts through the trees in the Tongass National Forest on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: We must demand that the Roadless Rule is upheld

It is a mistake to trade portions of the world’s last remaining pristine temperate rainforest.

  • By Duncan Kowalski
  • Tuesday, April 14, 2020 12:54pm
  • Opinion

As a lifelong commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska, I strongly oppose the U.S. Forest Service proposal to eliminate essential protections for large roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest. I grew up exploring the Tongass behind our family cabin on Kupreanof Island, south of Petersburg.

As a kid, the forest appeared ancient and eternal, dense with beds of moss, skunk cabbage and blueberries galore.

Soon, I was fishing with my dad, tending Dungeness crab pots and long-lining for halibut. In college, I got a job as a skiff-man on a salmon seiner out of Petersburg, fishing up and down the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, trying to corral the prized bright blue and green sockeye salmon. I loved the camaraderie of the boat crews, stepping up to the challenge of formidable marine weather forecasts to run our gear in rough coastal swells, returning to town the next day to unload our catch and hoot it up with the other crews.

At the time, I probably took for granted the abundance of salmon and wildlife inhabiting the coastlines we prowled. Some off-days we’d take kayaks ashore to explore massive Sitka spruce, cedar and hemlock stands or hike a creek and encounter bears, bald eagles, otters, deer and once even a wolf. Working on a salmon boat throughout the fishing grounds of southeast is like your own private cruise through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The Tongass encompasses this archipelago of Southeast Alaska, a vast landscape of rugged glacier fjords, salmon stream watersheds, rivers, lakes, striking snowy mountain peaks, alpine tundra and of course, magnificent old-growth forests. At about 17 million acres the Tongass is our nation’s largest National Forest. Combined with British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, it is the largest intact temperate rainforest on earth.

It is full of life, containing more biomass per acre than any ecosystem on earth, according to The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. Consequently, it serves as an essential buffer to climate change as a massive carbon sequestering and storage machine.

Considering its awe-inspiring beauty and rich wildlife habitat, the Tongass is rightly a global tourist destination, drawing 1.2 million annual visitors that support 10,000 local jobs and contribute $2 billion annually to the regional economy.

Incredibly, our economy and natural resources are jeopardized by the Trump administration’s effort to roll back the 2001 Roadless Rule that protects 9.2 million pristine acres of the Tongass from new roadbuilding and timber harvest operations. Timber companies have targeted the largest and oldest trees, with half of the remaining large tree forests located in roadless areas. With the feeble argument of job creation and unlocking economic potential, this is a misguided and foolish proposition with destructive environmental and economic consequences.

Today, the timber industry in Southeast Alaska makes up less than 1% of the local economy with tourism outnumbering timber jobs 20-1. What’s more confounding, timber harvests would operate at a loss absent support from federal subsidies that total up to $20 million annually or about $130,000 per timber job. According to some estimates, taxpayers have lost about $1 billion in Tongass timber sales since 1982.

We must reject the Trump administration’s effort to allow more old-growth logging in the Tongass. Remember that we are all interconnected stakeholders in our future. In an era of real climate emergency and rapid habitat loss, we cannot afford to continue with business as usual. Old-growth forests do not simply grow back. We must recalibrate our economic decision making to reflect the true cost of disposable resource extraction.

It is a mistake to trade portions of the world’s last remaining pristine temperate rainforest wilderness, salmon and wildlife habitat, and essential carbon capture and storage system that generates billions of dollars to the local economy in tourism and commercial fishing revenue, all for a shortsighted handout to a couple timber industry executives. Together as Alaskans and global citizens we must demand that our U.S. Forest Service and elected officials listen to a clear majority of constituents and uphold the Roadless Rule to protect the Tongass National Forest.

• Duncan Kowalski is a commercial fisherman out of Petersburg AK, lives in Bellingham WA during the winter and holds a degree in Environmental Science from Western Washington University. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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