The U.S. Forest Service has released a report laying the groundwork to open more than 9 million acres in the nation’s largest national forest to logging.
The preferred alternative in its environmental study, released Friday, would exempt southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a rule prohibiting road construction and timber harvesting.
That would remove 9.37 million acres from roadless designation and provide the most possible timber harvest opportunities of six options the agency considered.
Logging in the Tongass has been off-limits since 2001 when President Bill Clinton issued a “roadless rule.” It banned road construction, reconstruction and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of national forest system lands.
The preferred alternative in the agency’s final environmental impact statement would make 168,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres available for harvesting. The agency said the first trees to go will be old-growth trees, or woods undisturbed by human activity. After about 16 years, harvesting of old-growth trees would decrease as more young-growth become economic to harvest.
Logging of old-growth forests is of most concern to environmentalists. Old-growth forests have a range of trees of varying ages, some huge and ancient. Southeast Alaska’s old-growth forest includes trees more than 550 years old.
Old-growth forests provide diverse habitat and support a wider range of wildlife than younger forests. They also take carbon out of the atmosphere, reducing the amount that contributes to greenhouse gases. In 2016, federal scientists found the Tongass removes more carbon than any other forest in North America.
The final environmental statement said effects of logging to wildlife, recreation, tourism, mining and salmon harvesting and processing would be minimal. The gathering of food and other natural resources by Alaska Natives would likewise be affected very little, according to the agency.
The agency’s impact statement was issued in response to a 2018 petition from the state asking for the exemption from the roadless rule, saying it has unfairly blocked public access, including the roads essential to supporting a vital regional timber industry.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy welcomed the report. “We thank Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his team for conducting a thorough evaluation and proposing a reasonable accommodation for Alaska, and we look forward to release of the Final Alaska Roadless Rule.”
The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which represents 30,000 tribal citizens, said in 2019: “The Indigenous tribal governments of southeast Alaska know our traditional territory; we have lived, depended on, and stewarded these lands and waters since time immemorial. We know that the full exemption for development activities would forever harm our homelands.”
Some see the Tongass “as a salmon forest, a timber forest, a vast wilderness to visit and explore,” the council said. “Indigenous people see it differently.”
The forest is the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, “a lineage that stretches so deep in time, we call it immemorial,” the group stated. “Our origin stories are derived from these lands. Our ancestors are buried here. Our songs and dances are created here. Our languages have always been spoken here.”
The parent company of the region’s dominant timber producer said the next steps are important. Sealaska, the regional for-profit Native corporation created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, owns Sealaska Timber Company, which has sold more than 3.5 billion board feet of timber — western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar — since its start in 1979.
Sealaska said it believes the ruling’s success will depend on the processes that the Forest Service follows to work closely with local communities, Alaska Native corporations and tribes within the Tongass.
“We urge the Forest Service to appropriately include these local entities, and most importantly the sovereign tribes, into the local decision-making process,” Sealaska said. “Community priorities for economic development, clean energy projects, conservation and traditional fishing, hunting and harvesting, amongst others, should drive local level management of the Tongass.”
The exemption is the wrong call for the Tongass, Austin Williams, Alaska director of law and policy for Trout Unlimited, said in a statement.
“It’s clear the state of Alaska, the old-growth clear-cut logging industry, and others behind this short-sighted new rule want a return to the days of reckless clear-cut logging that sacrifices our fish, wildlife and forests without regard for the costs to southeast Alaska’s fishing and tourism economy, subsistence users, recreationists, or the long-term health of the region.”
Keegan McCarthy, owner of Coastal Alaska Adventures and Custom Alaska Cruises, said the state should be conserving its remaining roadless areas rather than rolling back protections that make businesses like hers possible.
“Our livelihoods and the future of our families depend on this forest,” she said. “Sacrificing more of the Tongass to expanded and unsustainable clear-cut logging ignores the economic and social realities of today, and threatens to destroy thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses just like mine.”
Much of the public testimony on the proposal to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule has supported keeping protections in place.
“We need a new approach that actually heeds tribes and southeast Alaskan stakeholders,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, a nonprofit advocacy group. “This move represents a focus on the past, not the future; is deeply disappointing; is wildly unpopular; and is likely to be overturned in the courts.”
The final environmental impact statement is a strong indication of where the federal government is headed as far as permitting goes. The Forest Service will issue a record of decision sometime after 30 days.