By Bobby Magill, originally published December 9, 2019 at Bloomberg Environment
Deep within the Tongass National Forest, the rain was just heavy enough to need an umbrella—and to wash away a light dusting of snow coating the mountains above Juneau, Alaska.
The low that mid-November morning was 38 degrees, 10 degrees above normal. That’s been the new normal in Alaska’s warmest year on record, slowing the salmon runs in what should be icy streams and killing an estimated 600,000 acres of towering yellow cedar trees.
“See all this rain? We should be having snow,” said Kenneth Weitzel, a natural resources specialist with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who’d just returned from a float-plane trip into the Tongass to collect water samples from streams. “Less snow, more rain—that’s the regime we’re changing into now.”
Covering most of Southeast Alaska, the Tongass is the world’s largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest. It’s part of an ecosystem stretching from Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula to North California’s redwoods. With vast areas covered in centuries-old hemlock and Sitka spruce, the Tongass holds 8% of the carbon stored in continental U.S. forests, playing an outsized role in helping to stabilize the climate because its old-growth trees and soil store more carbon dioxide acre-for-acre than the Amazon.
President Donald Trump’s administration nonetheless is proposing to exempt the entire forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule as Alaska’s struggling timber companies seek to fell its spruce and hemlock, and mining companies look to extract rare-earth elements to feed the global demand for consumer electronics. The rule prohibits road-building and logging in unprotected regions of America’s national forests.
“It’s about the timber. It’s always been about the timber,” said Jim Furnish, a former U.S. Forest Service deputy chief in President Bill Clinton’s administration who was one of the rule’s chief architects. “This is an ideological clash. The state of Alaska has not liked roadless protections from the get go.”
“Alaska has been beaten legally over and over again,” Furnish said. “Now, this is their Hail Mary pass.”
The Forest Service and timber industry say that waiving the rule would open only a small fraction of the 16.8-million-acre forest to logging, because much of it is protected wilderness and forest officials don’t consider the rest to be ideal for harvesting. Still, environmental groups say it leaves the door open for delimbers and feller bunchers to eventually gain access to more than 9 million acres of rainforest, including its carbon-rich ancient trees.
Even in proposing to end roadless protections, the Forest Service said the untouched Tongass’ ability to improve air quality, regulate climate, sequester carbon, and support biological diversity adds up to “long-term life support benefits to society as a whole.”
Agency research shows that old-growth stands in the Tongass store 72 tons of carbon per acre in logs and live tree trunks, not including soils. Parts of the Tongass that have been logged in the past store about 45 tons per acre.
While only a fraction of the size of the Mississippi River watershed, the coastal temperate rainforest sends at least twice the Mississippi’s volume of water into the Pacific Ocean, providing nutrients for marine life, said Allison Bidlack, director of the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center in Juneau, part of the University of Alaska-Southeast.
“They’re sort of small, but mighty,” she said.
In addition to its hemlock, spruce, and salmon streams, the Tongass features glaciers including the quickly receding Mendenhall, near Juneau. It serves as a drip-dripping real-time reminder of the impact of climate change for Juneau residents and tourists as Mendenhall Lake swells with meltwater at the glacier’s base.
An artist in downtown Juneau sells a series of postcards, including one depicting the Mendenhall Glacier with the caption: “It used to be bigger.”
This year, the Tongass suffered through Alaska’s first extreme drought in recorded history. It became so dry in Ketchikan, in the state’s far southeast, that the hydropower dams dried up, forcing communities to rely on diesel generators to supply electricity.
The more the Tongass is logged and stricken by drought and wildfire, the more its peat bogs and spongy soils dry out and the more its trees die. And the more the trees die, the less carbon the forest can store.
“You’re basically transferring the carbon stored in the forest and putting it into the atmosphere,” said Steve Hamburg, a former Brown University forest ecology professor. He co-wrote a 2006 study estimating how much carbon the Tongass lost when about 5% of the forest was logged in the 1970s and 1980s.
“When you have a forest where you have a high density of carbon and relatively slow growth, then the potential for carbon impacts of logging are quite large,” said Hamburg, now chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Where scientists see a vast ecosystem, Alaska state officials see stores of untapped minerals as well as timber that could arrest the steady decline of Alaska’s logging industry.
Harvested timber from the Tongass fell from about 475 million board feet in 1990 to just over 100 million board feet in 1997, according to a 2016 Forest Service report. Today, the output is less than 50 million board feet.
Trump’s trade war has led to a 20 percent tariff on timber exports to China, one of the Alaska industry’s largest markets, forcing half the company’s logging projects to shutter or slow production, Sealaska Corp. Vice President Jaeleen Kookeshsaid at a Nov. 20 industry conference in Anchorage. Sealaska is the region’s largest logging company.
She said timber sales were also sidelined by Alaska’s severe wildfire season, which was driven by climate change and burned throughout the Tongass and Alaska’s Interior.
Alaska officials blame the timber industry’s decline on the Roadless Rule even though conditions worsened years before planning on the rule began.
The 2001 Roadless Rule “effectively took millions of acres off the table for even the most basic activity—damaging local economies and all but killing the Southeast Alaska timber industry,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) said in an August statement to Bloomberg Environment.
The Tongass needs fewer restrictions on tourism, timber, mining, hydropower, and other development, he said.
“We’re looking for flexibility for the communities and the different industries that operate in Southeast Alaska that are important to the state’s economy,” Chris Maisch, director of the Alaska Division of Forestry, told Bloomberg Environment Dec. 4. “Anything you might want to undertake falls into roadless. It’s much more expensive and burdensome from a permitting, process standpoint.”
But many of those communities—especially Native Alaskan communities—oppose the proposed roadless exemption and say they’re not being heard.
“Everyone’s greatest concern is this giant hammer that’s going to come down and say—Wham!— this roadless is gone instead of it being more complex and intricate and localized,” Weitzel said. “We need a bigger voice at the table.”
President George W. Bush’s administration exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in 2003. Environmental groups successfully challenged the move in court, a decision affirmed by a federal appeals court in 2015.
After Trump was elected, Alaska petitioned the Forest Service to again exempt the Tongass, arguing that the courts never quibbled with the agency’s rationale for exempting the Tongass in the first place.
Trump and Dunleavy met over the summer to discuss the Roadless Rule, the Washington Post reported, and in August Trump ordered the Forest Service to fully exempt the Tongass.
After the meeting, the Forest Service put out six options in a draft of a new rule that would apply only to Alaska. Five of the six kept at least some roadless protections for parts of the forest. The Forest Service’s stated preference, though, is to grant Trump’s and Alaska’s request to remove all roadless protections.
Congressional Democrats accused the administration of working toward a predetermined outcome, but Forest Service officials say they’re listening to public objections. The public is allowed to comment until Dec. 17, and a final version of the rule is expected in 2020. The decision is up to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Exempting the entire forest from the Roadless Rule is a “potential door-opener for other opportunities in the Tongass,” Kookesh said.
In effect, the Tongass’ roadless areas have never been fully off-limits to new development.
The Forest Service has granted 57 Roadless Rule exemptions for hydropower projects, mines, and other developments within the roadless areas, and no proposal has ever been rejected, said David Schmid, a Forest Service Alaska regional forester who oversees the Tongass.
In 2013, for example, President Barack Obama’s administration approved a plan to let a Canadian company explore for rare-earth elements on Bokan Mountain within a roadless area on Prince of Wales Island.
In August, Dunleavey asked the Trump administration to fast-track the permitting for that mine, capitalizing on concerns voiced by the president and Republicans in Congress that China had developed a stranglehold on elements essential to the production of consumer electronics and military hardware.
Without the rule, the Tongass’ roadless areas would be governed by its forest plan, which calls for a fraction of the acreage to be logged.
The timber industry says that would open up only 185,000 acres to new logging, though those include at least 165,000 acres of old-growth trees. Kookesh said the Tongass also has protections from the Wilderness Act, which bans all development and logging across 5 million acres of the forest.
Lifting roadless protections is “just one little piece of all those layers of protection in that region,” she said. “There are so many other layers of protection in that region. The impact is pretty minimal.”
Any suggestion otherwise is tantamount to “false facts” peddled by environmentalists, she said.
All the wilderness, rock and glacier ice and other areas that can’t easily be logged within the forest need to be balanced with the areas that loggers and developers can get to, Schmid said. The scale of the Tongass “is huge,” Schmid said, so it’s likely that even if roadless protections are lifted, many areas will remain protected.
Catherine Mater, president of Mater Engineering, an Oregon-based sawmill designer, advocates for the timber industry to sell its rights to cut old trees as carbon credits. She said she wants the industry to focus on harvesting younger trees that grew after the logging heyday of the 1970s and ‘80s.
“The Tongass is the nation’s largest carbon absorption mechanism,” said Mater, who’s also a senior fellow at the Pinchot Institute, a nonpartisan forest conservation think tank in Washington, D.C. “The highest and best use of that old growth and leaving it alone and letting it continue to grow as a carbon bank.”
For now, Bidlack said, the Tongass is functioning fairly well as an ecosystem even with its past logging. But having lived there for the last 20 years, Bidlack she said she’s seen other forests in Alaska south and east of Anchorage quickly fragmented and degraded.
Allowing roads doesn’t just allow access to loggers, she said. She sees the potential for “sort of death by 1,000 cuts” if roads also allow in miners, roadway culverts cut off fish habitat, and more people stream into the forest, competing for space with wild animals.
“We tend to think it’s not going to happen here, but the fact is that it does, it always seems to,” Bidlack said. “We as humans, we’re not very good at stopping development.”