The Tongass Rainforest: Alaska's Crown Jewel

Under Threat by the Bush Administration

Feature story - May 3, 2004
Many consider the Tongass National Forest to be the "crown jewel" of our national forest system. Governor Murkowski of Alaska, and the Bush administration are agressively pursuing this ecological wonderland for logging.

Activists pay homage to an old growth tree in the Tongass Rainforest

Logging the Tongass

Southeast Alaska, the 500-mile long panhandle of Alaska, is rainforest country. It is a lush area of a thousand forested islands and fiords near the northern end of the great coastal temperate rainforest that sweeps far northward from the California redwoods up along the Gulf of Alaska. This kind of forest, found in several countries, was always the rarest forest type on Earth. Because of this rarity and a history of intense logging, it is even more threatened than tropical rainforests. About one-third of the old-growth temperate rainforest remaining on Earth is in the Alaska panhandle -- and although the forest here is still intact, it is in great jeopardy.

Surprisingly, the great ancient rainforest of Alaska's panhandle has no official name. We call it the "Tongass Rainforest." Once, the Tongass National Forest was comprised of the entire Tongass Rainforest. Over recent decades, however, much of the best forestland has been turned over from the national forest to private ownership and the State of Alaska. Although reduced in size, at 17-million acres the Tongass National Forest is now about the size of West Virginia and is still by far our largest national forest.

The Tongass Rainforest is home to an abundance of wildlife unlike anywhere else in the United States -- five species of salmon, whales, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, black tail deer, wolverines and magnificent birds such as the bald eagle, northern goshawk and marbled murrelet.

Looking at either the Tongass Rainforest as a whole or just the Tongass National Forest, most of the landmass actually is not forested. Fully two-thirds of it is rock, ice, muskeg and shrub forest. The remaining third is so-called "productive forest" or "commercial forest," but trees on the majority even of this third are so small they are unattractive to the logging industry, and the habitat they offer is not exceptional. The fight over logging here is primarily over a small fraction of the forest -- the big-trees.

Logging In the Tongass: Introduction

On the Tongass National Forest -- the part of the Tongass Rainforest that you own as an American citizen -- the Bush administration recently dismantled forest protection that had been enacted through the strongly expressed will of the people. Under President Clinton, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was enacted to protect nearly one-third of the 192 million acres in the national forest system, nationwide. These "roadless" areas contain some of the last remaining wild places in the country. Despite the Rule's wild popularity with the American public and Bush's pledge to uphold the rule if elected, his administration recently withdrew the Tongass National Forest from the Rule's protection. The 9.3 million acres (not all of it forested) in the Tongass National Forest that have lost this protection include much of the critical old-growth habitat in this last, largest remaining chunk of coastal temperate rainforest. This puts much of the heart of Alaska's rainforest, once again, back on the chopping block.

Logging companies have targeted the big-tree ancient forest stands that provide the best wildlife habitat in the Tongass Rainforest. To date, a million acres of this big-tree forest have been clearcut, making this rare forest type within the Tongass Rainforest rarer still. The timber industry is tearing out the biological heart of the Tongass Rainforest, with approximately half of the big-tree stands gone.

Another root of the problem with logging in the Tongass Rainforest is that it is marginally economic, even during the best of times. Accordingly, logging on private and public lands in the Tongass Rainforest has been heavily subsidized, and industry's strategy has been to log the best of the forest first, then the best of what is left. Political pressure has stymied much-needed forest protections at both the congressional and agency levels, although there have been some substantial successes over time.

The United States Forest Service: Getting the Cut Out

While about half of the big-tree ancient forest and two-thirds of the biggest-tree stands have been decimated, the United States Forest Service has for decades hidden these facts from the public and Congress. The Forest Service uses statistics to imply that all 17 million acres of the Tongass National "Forest" is indeed all forested -- while in reality, two-thirds of it is not. The agency also abuses data on forest composition by using statistical slight-of-hand to embellish the small acreage of big-tree forest with vast acreages having dense stands of small trees, erroneously claiming that tree density alone, not forest canopy structure, creates good habitat.

Logging on Privately Owned Lands and the Forest Service's Responsibility

The impact of logging on the Tongass National Forest has been extreme, but acre for acre the impact of logging on private lands in the Tongass Rainforest, conducted now for about a quarter-century, is even worse. Conservation organizations have fewer tools for dealing with forest exploitation on private land because of private property rights. Greenpeace advocates that the corporations logging on private lands in the Tongass Rainforest bring their operations up to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. The FSC is a non-profit organization devoted to encouraging the responsible management of the world's forests. Obtaining FSC certification assures that environmental, social, cultural and economic harm is minimized and that an operation is sustainable, informs consumers and benefits the corporation in the marketplace. This would be a marked improvement over current practices.

Another dimension of private forestlands in the Tongass Rainforest is that they are intermingled with lands of the Tongass National Forest. Although the public has limited power controlling logging on private lands, management of the national forest can and should compensate as much as possible for destructive practices on the private forest. In fact, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Forest Service to consider cumulative environmental impacts when making decisions and to release an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Cumulative impacts include those that accrue over time from more than one project, or that cross land ownerships. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has been steadfast in its refusal to consider the massive clearcuts and extreme impacts of logging on nearby private land as it plans its own projects.

Wanted: Your Taxes for Clearcuts

Adding insult to injury, your taxpayer dollars subsidize the timber industry in Alaska's rainforest, both on public and private lands. The remoteness of the Tongass Rainforest and its rugged terrain make it the most expensive place to log in America. Since 1980, logging on the Tongass National Forest has cost Americans nearly one billion dollars, and is still losing an average of $35 million per year - the biggest money loser in the national forest system. Whether on private or public forestland, and even when clearcutting the most valuable stands of the Tongass Rainforest, logging has proven to be a boondoggle.

In addition, corporations logging their own lands in Alaska are allowed to sell their "net operating losses" at a discount to other corporations, which then write off those losses on their own taxes. This is a practice that was ended elsewhere in the nation years ago, and it has artificially enabled the corporations to abuse their lands and degrade the integrity of the Tongass Rainforest with logging operations that are not economic. As always, the public pays more taxes to make up for the lost revenues when corporations don't pay their fare share.

The Jobs Myth

Most of the wood from the Tongass is exported to Asia or shipped to the contiguous U.S with little or no processing. Our tax dollars and our precious rainforest are being squandered, and so too are the jobs that could have been provided to fully process the wood in the U.S. The economy of Southeast Alaska has not been dependent on timber for years. In a region with a population of 75,000, there are only 650 remaining timber-related jobs in Southeast Alaska, down from a decade ago when the timber industry employed 5,000. The single largest employer in the region is still commercial fishing. The second largest employer is tourism and recreation. The bulk of jobs in the region are with the local, state, and federal government, and retail. According to the Alaska Department of Labor, tourism-related employment has steadily grown, and with falling employment in the logging sector, now provides almost 20 times more jobs than logging in the Tongass.

Numerous studies show that an intact forest provides more jobs, revenue and conservation benefits than a forest that is logged. The U.S. Forest Service's own studies show that national forests provide 31 times more revenue and 38 times more jobs from recreation and tourism than from logging. Logging accounts for only two percent of the Southeast Alaska's economy. The bulks of jobs in the region come from tourism and recreation, government agencies and retail business. The economic backbone of Southeast Alaska is and has always been commercial fishing, an industry that is tied to the health and well being of the ecosystem.