Industrial logging set to resume in the Tongass

Alaskan rainforest faces decimation

Feature story - 17 September, 2003
We've sent the largest ship in our fleet, the MV Esperanza, to Southeast Alaska to expose the impacts of industrial logging on the the Tongass National Forest (TNF), the largest forest in the US and one of the most diverse and irreplaceable habitats anywhere in the world.

Moonrise over the Tongass National Forest

The Esperanza reached the Tongass in August on its "Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms" tour, investigating the threat posed by the Bush administration's large-scale logging strategies to forests across America. The tour has already met with resistance from local authorities who have thrown many obstacles in its way, including denying dock space for the ship to make the visit as difficult as possible. However, many local community members (including the indigenous Tlingit peoples) have thwarted those efforts, going so far as to offer us their personal berth spaces.

"Much of the community welcomes us and wants Greenpeace to stop the destruction of this unique and beautiful forest," said Mel Duchin, Greenpeace campaigner onboard the MV Esperanza. "The US may try to silence the message but the American public will hear the truth about its government's role in forest destruction loud and clear."

Why Tongass needs protection

TNF is a remote coastal rainforest unparalleled anywhere on the planet, home to awe-inspiring landscapes and robust populations of grizzly bears, bald eagles, wild salmon, and other wildlife. Stretching 500 miles along the Southeast Alaska coast, the 17 million-acre wilderness area is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.

Over 1,000 mist-shrouded islands, narrow inlets, and glacier-carved fjords punctuate its 11,000 miles of coastline. Enormous Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red and yellow cedar dominate its ancient forests. These trees often grow to over 200 feet and live for more than 1,000 years. Set against a majestic backdrop of coastal mountains towering up to 18,000 feet, the rainforest of the Tongass is also home to diverse communities which depend on the forest's resources for survival. Commercial fishing and tourism are mainstays of the local economy, and the bounty of the land and sea continues to feed rural families, many of whom still lead a traditional subsistence way of life.

The island system and high mountains of the Tongass support a wide variety of native wildlife. Much of the terrain is arduous and difficult to penetrate. As a result many species have been isolated for generations, creating wide genetic diversity and resulting in an ecosystem even more rare and threatened than tropical rainforests.

The highest density of grizzly bears in North America thrives in the vast wild reaches of the Tongass. It's also home to the unique blue bear and the rare Alexander Archipelago wolf, together with thriving communities of other rarely seen animals such as wolverines and black-tail deer.

Overhead fly magnificent birds such as the bald eagle and northern goshawk. Ancient runs of all five species of wild Pacific salmon return here each year, nurturing the forest and its wildlife. Killer whales, humpback whales, porpoises, river and sea otters all thrive in the forest's nutrient rich waters. The surrounding ocean has healthy populations of Steller sea lions and Marbled Murrelets, both listed as federally threatened, and its old-growth forests are home to the Queen Charlotte goshawk, also under consideration for federal Endangered Species protection.

A Brief History of Forest Crime - Tongass Style

Historically, the Tongass is most heavily logged of America's national forests. Dense patchworks of roads and thousands of clearcuts (created when an entire area of forest is felled, often just to get at a few high value trees) have replaced its most productive fish and wildlife habitat.

Since 1950, approximately one million acres of Southeast Alaska have been clearcut. Over 70 percent of the biggest and best forest has been logged, resulting in the loss of much of the most critical wildlife habitat. Two pulp companies enjoyed exclusive, long-term contracts to log the ancient forests of the Tongass, exporting mainly to Japan. By the time large-scale logging peaked in the 1980s,annual cuts were as high as 480 MMBF (Million Board Feet) and over 4,650 miles of roads had been built, primarily for logging access. Due to a long-term decline in world pulp prices and increasing public outcry, the two mills closed in the mid 1990s and production fell dramatically.

But now plans are afoot to re-introduce industrial-scale commercial logging. President Bush signalled his intentions in 2001 by giving former forestry industry lobbyist Mark E. Rey control over the US Forest Service. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse!

Backed by a White House that is hostile to wilderness protection and an extremely pro-development Alaskan state legislature, the Forest Service announced its intention to conduct 50 large-scale timber sales in pristine areas of the Tongass in early 2003. The targeted trees are mainly red and yellow cedar - which are in long-term decline and regenerate very slowly - and the largest old-growth spruce.

Ninety-five percent will be clearcut, and its sale disguised behind fire prevention and post-fire salvage operations, pseudo "forest health initiatives" and "restoration" programs. The Bush administration and the Forest Service have manipulated the public's fear of fire to undermine environmental laws and public process in pushing their commercial logging and thinning agenda - these very same activities are what have created younger, denser and more fire-prone forests. The Forest Service is working hard to increase the annual cut back up to over 200 MMBF.

Legally, these timber sales should all be prohibited under the "Roadless Rule." Enacted by former President Clinton shortly before leaving office, the rule bans logging and road building on 58.5 million acres of national forest land, and commands strong public support. Just over half the Tongass National Forest (9.2 million acres) is roadless area.

Introduction of the rule resulted in record low levels of logging in the past two years. But the Bush administration has indicated that it plans to undercut or eliminate the Roadless Rule and has already proposed exempting the Tongass from the rule. The logging and road building that the administration is pushing for in these forests would destroy wildlife habitat, silt up world-class salmon streams, and degrade forever the pristine character of America's last great temperate rainforests.

If the Bush administration succeeds in derailing the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service could sell a staggering 800 million board feet (MMBF) of old-growth trees in the next three years. Their own Tongass 10-year Timber Schedule calls for logging just under a billion board feet from roadless areas by 2012.

Who benefits?

The wildness and remoteness of the Tongass makes it an expensive place to log. In fact, the federal government loses taxpayer's money on every tree it sells. The Tongass has been the biggest money-losing national forest for the past 40 years, losing over $30 million annually on commercial timber sales. Consequently, the Forest Service repeatedly says it has insufficient funding to pay for recreation and tourism planning, or to do as much thinning as it would like. Without massive tax subsidies, most logging operations would have never taken place. The Bush administration's moves to revitalize logging of the Tongass will only increase taxpayer losses on government welfare to timber companies.

Repeated studies have shown that healthy forests provide far greater economic benefits than do logged ones. Healthy ecosystem qualities such as clean air and water, fish, wildlife and recreation, generate far more jobs and economic benefits for Tongass communities than timber dollars ever could.

More Information

Follow the MV Esperanza on the Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms tour

Read more about the Roadless Area Conservation Rule

Take Action Now!

Act now to protect America's ancient forests