Tongass National Forest has become almost mythical to me. Years ago, I read an inspiring piece of journalism exploring the disastrous effects of the logging industry on the Alaskan forest and fell in love with the place. The landscape the author painted with vivid details and luscious adjectives dazzled me, and I promised myself I would visit one day.
Tongass is a gem. The 16.8 million-acre, old-growth, temperate rainforest is home to more natural splendors than I have inches to do justice. The largest of all our national forests, Tongass encompasses the majority of the Alaskan panhandle and is staggering in its diversity of flora and fauna. But Tongass’ treasures have also been the bane of its existence. Money might not grow on trees, but it flourishes in the land's rich and fertile soil.
Last week the latest act in what is starting to seem like the tragedy of Tongass played out. The Juneau Empire reported that the U.S. Forest Service was given the OK to allow Pacific Log and Lumber, an Alaskan timber mill in the panhandle, to clear-cut a 381-acre swath in the national forest. Although the base contract for 4.4 million board feet is relatively small and logging in Tongass is prevalent, the decision was made at a time when a real stand could have been made for conservation and Tongass.
A bit of history: In 2001, the Clinton administration created the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect more than 58 million acres of undeveloped land in our national forests. Almost 10 million of these acres were in Tongass. Known as the “no new roads rule,” and derided by those in the timber industry, the Bush administration amended the rule so that states could have autonomy over their roadless policies (wink, wink). These changes were overturned in 2006, but that was too late for Tongass. As the result of a court charge Alaska brought against the government in 2003 claiming the logging industry was vital to the economy of the area, Tongass became the only national forest completely exempt from the rule.
Present day: The Obama administration is currently reviewing the original Roadless Area Conservation Rule and will address the issue sometime next year. Until then, all contracts concerning areas that were originally inventoried as protected under the rule must be personally reviewed and approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Reportedly, Vilsack based his decision to green light the project on the need to jump start the local economy.
This is simply unacceptable. Economics are just too broad of a reason to go ahead with such long-term damage. This is not job creation so much as it is laziness to come up with responsible solutions. There is but a fraction of the original old-growth trees left in Tongass, and they must be preserved. As Douglas H. Chadwick pointed out in a stellar feature on Tongass for National Geographic, “by the measure of a human life span, conifers hundreds of years high and wide are not really renewable resources, and extracting them is more akin to mining.”
Furthermore, roads are unbelievably damaging. They cause erosion that eventually choke streams and creeks vital to the ecosystem. In Tongass, where the salmon runs are epic and play as vital of a role to the ecosystem as logging does for the economy, new roads could be disastrous. Also, roads and human presence inevitably result in pollution and are just generally intrusive and harmful to an environment and its inhabitants.
I understand that the desk I use as my workspace and the chair that I am sitting on are products of this industry, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Although this was just one decision, I expect and demand more from our leaders. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule needs to be fully reinstituted and regulated with a heavy hand. Future generations should not be bereft of such beauty and natural wonders because we failed to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible.
I still plan on making it to Tongass one day, and I can’t wait to crane my neck skywards and exalt under the soaring canopy of the cathedral forests, but I am also prepared for the worst – an unfortunate generational byproduct. I understand there are many costs to preservation, but if you have ever spent any real time in nature, you understand that the cost is a mere pittance of what we gain in return.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: "The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy."
Right now, I couldn’t agree more.
Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.