The Tongass National Forest lies in the northern reaches of Cascadia, on a narrow coastal stretch (~160 km wide) in southeastern Alaska. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the nation, sharing boundaries with Glacier Bay National Park and Chugach National Forest. Together, they make up more than one fourth of the world’s coastal temperate rainforest. The Tongass’ 17 million acres, wrapping around 11,000 miles of coastline, are home to one of the most pristine shoreline ecosystems on the planet and the largest area of old-growth temperate rainforest in the United States.
Glaciers covered most of the region 14,000-20,000 years ago, carving narrow bays into rugged terrain, forming a diverse and sinuous coastline. The thousands of islands that make up the Tongass vary greatly in size and topography, ranging from small islands consisting of solid rock to larger islands with muskeg, numerous streams, and densely forested mountains reaching 1500-m. Although the region’s climate is characterized by mild temperatures and heavy rainfall (average 2,450-mm/year), considerable variation exists between islands. The varying and interactive factors of climate, geomorphology, and history strongly influence the distribution of ecological assemblages found within this island landscape.
The predominant forests of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) rarely experience fire or other stand placing disturbances, allowing them to reach considerable age. The structural diversity, richness of flora, and coarse-woody debris found in old-growth forests of the Tongass create critical habitat for a multitude of fish and wildlife species, including: the endangered marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), endemic Alexander archipelago wolf (Canus lupis liigoni), beaver (Castor canadensis), moose (Alces alces), Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis), and five species of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.). The old-growth forests of the Tongass are not only noteworthy for their biodiversity, but also for their productivity and carbon sequestration. The dynamic interface of mountains, numerous streams, estuaries, and lush forests within a wet, mild climate creates one of the most productive ecoregions in North America. The Tongass has been called “our national forest system’s single greatest mitigater of climate change”, fostering one of the highest carbon stores per unit area in the world. Tongass temperate rainforests contain the equivalent of 10-12% of the total carbon stored in forests of the contiguous United States.
Despite the global significance of the Tongass, old-growth temperate rainforests remain vulnerable to unsustainable logging practices. Corrupt politics and mismanagement define the history of timber production in the Tongass. In the mid 1900’s, high grading of the largest and most valuable trees transitioned into more mechanized industrial methods, resulting in a fragmented and degraded landscape. Over 450,000 acres and 18 billion board feet of Tongass old-growth has been extracted in the past half a century. Although the Tongass is no longer exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule, which prohibits new road construction or logging operations within undeveloped stretches of national forest, timber extraction continues where roads already exist and a loss of 70% of the remaining old-growth is predicted over the next 150 years..
Clear-cutting the nation’s last remaining old-growth no longer has an economic justification, as the Tongass timber industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Although the blame is often placed on successes of the environmental movement, the slow demise of the Tongass logging industry is primarily a result of inherent flaws in the system. Due to rugged inaccessible terrain, distance from markets, and limited infrastructure, operations in the Tongass have maintained some of the highest harvest and processing costs in the world since their inception. These factors, in addition to market fluctuations, have consistently resulted in net losses close to $20 million annually, despite government subsidies funded by US taxpayers.
This failing logging industry exists within a complex social and ecological sphere, as southeastern Alaska has been home to the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian for thousands of years and the Tongass remains their unceded territory. The cultural heritage of the region has experienced much turmoil since colonization, epitomized by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). The Act, which granted 45.5 million acres and $962.5 million in claims upon the formation of regional Native corporations, continues to be a contentious subject. Many appreciate its successes, while others contend the settlement is a vehicle for assimilation, as it placed the stewardship of ancestral lands within a western capitalist framework-- a framework that is inherently incompatible with traditional culture in many ways. The indigenous communities of the Tongass remain intimately connected to their temperate rainforest home, relying on the forests and waters for subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering of food plants. Only three of the 33 communities in southeastern Alaska are connected to the mainland by road, many are poor, and all rely on healthy forests for a stable future.
While the timber industry of the Tongass sustains only about a hundred jobs within these remote communities, the sustainable industries of southeastern Alaska’s economy are thriving. Fishing, recreation, and tourism continue to expand, with tourism alone employing 10,000 people and generating $1 billion annually. The social, ecological, and economic wealth of the region depends on the health of the Tongass’ temperate rainforests and the web of biodiversity they support. Despite the US Forest Service’s vow to amend the Tongass Land Management Plan and transition from extracting old-growth to second-growth in the next 10-15 years, the ecosystems of the Tongass remain at risk. The Tongass is one of the last wild places in our nation and the salmon, Alexander archipelago wolf, and ancient trees who call these forests home cannot wait 10 more years for an end to old-growth logging. Immediate permanent protection of the Tongass’ remaining old-growth is the only way to sustain the wealth of the region for generations to come.