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Alaska’s old-growth forests are our climate-change insurance policy

Originally published March 15, 2018, available online at Seattle Times

There is no better place to experience old-growth forests than the Tongass and Chugach national forests. Here, all five species of Pacific salmon line up to spawn like rush-hour traffic, spruce and hemlock trees tower like skyscrapers, and bears and wolves still run free.

By Gordon Orians and Dominick A. DellaSala

The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the crown jewel of our national forest system, is facing an unprecedented threat.

At the end of last year, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced two legislative budget riders aimed at allowing thousands of acres of pristine, roadless old-growth rain forest on the Tongass and the Chugach National Forest to be clear-cut.

We recently joined more than 220 of our fellow scientists from Alaska and across the country in sending a letter to Congress urging members to reject these backdoor efforts to undermine long-standing roadless and old-growth forest protections.

Murkowski’s first rider would exempt all of the federal forests in Alaska from one of the country’s most important conservation safeguards — the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The second rider would overturn the Tongass forest plan, which protects roadless areas and other ecologically important lands from logging and charts a transition away from logging old-growth forest.

Our country’s old-growth forests and their intact roadless areas are the last vestiges of America’s truly wild places. Scientists recognize that the first road built into a wild area forever changes its character and ecological values.

Clear-cutting ancient forests compromises special places, fragments wildlife habitat, introduces invasive species that compete with native species and pollutes drinking water supplies from chronic sediment runoff along roads.

There is no better place to experience roadless old-growth forests than the Tongass and Chugach national forests. Here, all five species of Pacific salmon line up to spawn like rush-hour traffic, spruce and hemlock trees tower like skyscrapers delimiting the Alaska skyline, and bears and wolves still run free.

The wild character of these extraordinary rain forests supports a diverse regional economy by providing world-class fishing, outdoor recreation, and tourism industries, which vastly outnumber the jobs in the logging industry.

Old-growth forests also play a vital role in helping to stabilize runaway global climate change.

The Tongass alone absorbs approximately 8 percent of the nation’s annual global warming pollution. No other national forest even comes close, making the Tongass the nation’s premier climate insurance policy.

Additionally, when old-growth rain forests like the Tongass are cut down they release up to two-thirds of their stored carbon to the atmosphere, which contributes to increased storm intensity, sea level rise, wildfires and climate-related health risks.

Alaskans are already confronting the scientific realities of climate change, including shrinking glaciers, the nation’s highest temperature increases, declining snow levels, and displaced villages due to excessive flooding.

Murkowski’s Roadless Rule rider takes aim at a long-standing conservation rule, which was enacted in 2001 and protects nearly 50 million acres (a third of the national forest system). The rider seeks a free pass for logging and road building in Alaska forests.

Murkowski would also like to undermine a collaborative process underway on the Tongass to slowly transition the timber industry out of destructive old-growth logging and into more responsible logging of younger forests — a transition designed to keep the timber industry viable while protecting precious old-growth rain forest.

Congress should reject these ill-advised riders, as they would usher in unmitigated old-growth logging in the last of our nation’s truly wild forests.

Building more roads into Alaska’s wild places needlessly reopens old-growth logging wounds and threatens southeast Alaska’s fishing and ecotourism industries.

Scientists are calling on Congress to maintain the existing protections for Alaska’s old-growth forests and to preserve these ancient rain forests for their climate and wildlife benefits. You can help, too, by calling your representatives.

Gordon Orians
Dominick A. DellaSala

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