A scared waterfall in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Photo: Howie Garber 

August 1, 2020

By Ramona du Houx

During the end of July, nine native Alaska tribes filed a petition calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt the removal of protections for the Tongass National Forest, the country’s largest reserve of public woodlands, which the tribes say is vital to their livelihoods.

“Not only is it devastating for the land, but for our people and for the survival of our culture,” said Marina Anderson, tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, who signed the petition. “It’s really essential that we keep these old growth timber stands intact.”

A 9.4 million-acre swath of the Tongass was protected under a Clinton Administration’s Roadless Rule. In it 58 million acres of undeveloped national forest lands were banned from roadbuilding, logging and mineral leasing.

“As a veteran I consider it my duty to protect it for all Americans. It’s our national legacy to protect publicly owned lands. It makes America unique, but it’s being sacrificed under the Trump administration’s acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Alaska is at risk. Our Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the country,” said local city councilman Mike Dryden. Councilman Dryden was part of a group of veterans who are elected officials that helped defend and fund the Land and Water Conservation Act in perpetuity.

Changes include removing the requirement to analyze cumulative impacts, like climate change, for new projects to take place on federal lands.

The Trump Administration has been moving aggressively to open the old-growth forest for logging and has requested that the U.S. Forest Service lift the rule from the Tongass, a process that is in its final stages. A decision is due by the end of summer.

Last year, in a September 2019 op-ed for The Washington Post, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asserted that the Tongass is protected without the Roadless Rule.

“Many Alaskans believe the roadless rule should never have been applied to our state because of the uncertainty and barriers it imposes,” Murkowski wrote in her op-ed in a political two faced moved to please the right and the left. “It works against common-sense projects such as renewable hydropower — raising costs, extending approval timelines and causing some projects to be nixed altogether.”

These “projects” have the tribes worried. Logging and road building in the Tongass would deplete and disrupt plant and animal populations in this ecosystem.

This forest is critical to the survival of indigenous tribes in southeastern Alaska. They hunt for deer and moose, fish for salmon, gather mushrooms, berries and medicinal plants, and use the massive trees to carve totem poles and canoes. Travel by canoe is essential.

“It’s (the forest) priceless,” said Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, one of the tribes that signed the petition. “It’s basically our grocery store.”

Grocery shopping is not practical for the tribes. The region is isolated region. Where there are stores prices are two or three times more than they would be in a city.

The forest is similar in importance to the world’s ecosystem as the Amazon is on a per acre basis, according to scientists, who note huge volumes of carbon stored in the old-growth trees.

Cutting the forest for profit doesn’t add up—

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent nonprofit group, reports that a Forest Service-operated timber sales program in the Tongass,“has generated huge net losses for the agency,” costing taxpayers nearly $600 million over the past two decades.

The benefit to the local economy has been minimal. Timber provides just under 1 percent of southeastern Alaska’s jobs according to the regional development organization Southeast Conference data, compared with 8 percent for seafood processing and 17 percent for tourism. These two industries would be negatively affected by the proposed rule change, according to PEW.

“In the wake of the passage of the $2.2 trillion and $484 billion stimulus packages, it seems Americans will need every penny moving forward to regain our economic stability. Yet, lifting the protections of the roadless rule will only deepen economic loss. Is now the time for America to be gambling or taking risks that history shows us are money losers for the taxpaying public?” wrote, Craig Shirley, biographer of former President Ronald Reagan, and Frank Donatelli, Reagan’s former political director, in a co-authored opinion piece.

Can what’s happening in Alaska happen in Maine?

Some have written to Maine Insights worried about Baxter State Park.

The iconic Baxter State Park Mountain was named Katahdin by the Penobscot Native Americans, which means “The Greatest Mountain.” It’s located within Northeast Piscataquis. It is a steep, tall massif formed from a granite intrusion weathered to the surface. The flora and fauna on the mountain are typical of those found in northern New England. The surrounding forests are old growth.

Legally Baxter State Park is a Maine State Park and under the state’s jurisdiction. So the park is safe, but Acadia National Park could face the threat. Any national park is apparently free game for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil company executive.