Alaska’s Tongass Forest Receives Protection

March 19, 2011 – Nick Engelfried

A federal judge has ruled that exempting Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a rule meant to protect roadless areas in the United States from logging is illegal, and that protections should be restored for the vast roadless areas in the Tongasst.  This decision will likely frustrate the timber industry’s attempts to increase logging in the Tongass Forest.  Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity praised the court ruling, saying it is victory for habitat conservation and the fight against climate change. 

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote that the court decision “means that millions of acres of old growth trees won’t be cut and some of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness in America will, for now, stay that way.” 

Located in southeastern Alaska, Tongass National Forest is the biggest national forest in the entire United States at almost seventeen million acres.  It encompasses one of the largest temperate rainforests in North America, and is home to grizzly bears, bald eagles, gray wolves, and many other spectacular wildlife species.  Ancient hemlocks, spruce, and cedar trees shelter an old growth ecosystem of the kind that once stretched from Alaska down through much of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.  Streams in the Tongass provide spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon, which in turn support economically important fisheries off Alaska’s coast.  

However this isn’t the end of Tongass National Forest’s importance.  Like other old growth forests the Tongass is an important carbon sink, and if protected could help stabilize the global climate.  Worldwide, deforestation is the second most important contributor to climate change after the burning of fossil fuels—but intact forests absorb carbon from the air and can help slow global warming.  According to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperate rainforests store even more carbon per acre than their more famous tropical counterparts, so their preservation is particularly important.

In early 2001 many unlogged areas in the Tongass received at leas temporary protection, when outgoing President Bill Clinton passed the Roadless Rule.  This executive order was designed to protect roadless forests from logging, and was challenged almost immediately by the George W. Bush administration.  Since then environmentalists and allies of the logging industry have engaged in a decade-long tug-of-war over the fate of roadless areas.  Temporarily suspended under the Bush administration, the Roadless Rule was eventually reinstated by court order for most areas where it originally applied.  However the Bush administration’s US Forest Service still chose to exempt Tongass National Forest from protections, allowing increased logging to move forward.

The decision to exempt Tongass Forest from the Roadless Rule was challenged in court by an alliance of environmental groups, representatives of Alaska’s tourism industry, and Native Alaskan tribes.  These groups argued the exemption was based on faulty assumptions that the Roadless Rule would contribute to job losses and prevent essential infrastructure projects in the Tongass.  This month US District Judge John W. Sedwick ruled in favor of the challenge, reinstating the Roadless Rule in the Tongass Forest.  According to Sedwick, the Forest Service failed to provide convincing evidence that the Roadless Rule would cause loss of jobs or prevent the construction of important utility lines.

Three timber sales already made in the Tongass Forest while the Roadless Rule was suspended will still be allowed to move forward, even with the new court ruling.  However most roadless areas in the forest will once again be protected.  This means logging will be prevented on 2.3 million acres which the Forest Service would otherwise have allowed to be given over to timber interests. 

Photo credit: “dbking” on Flickr

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