President Donald Trump’s decision to direct his agriculture secretary to explore opening America’s largest national forest to logging comes as no surprise, considering that Friedrich Trump, the president’s grandfather, made his original fortune amid the Alaska gold rush. But at a moment when so much of the Brazilian rainforest goes up in cinders, the abolishment of federal protections for Tongass National Forest is maddening nonetheless. This decision will cost the country its most substantial set of lungs, as well as our largest stand of old-growth trees – some of which began life more than 1,000 years ago.
Encouraged by his friend John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Tongass a national forest in 1907. An enchanted world of glaciers, fjords and colossal stands of spruce and hemlock, today the 17 million-acre area is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, covering 80% of the Alaskan Panhandle – known colloquially as “Southeast.” Referred to by Forest Service rangers as the “crown jewel,” the Tongass provides habitat for some of America’s most iconic creatures: bald eagles, salmon, wolves. Baranof Island, where I live with my wife and two daughters, is home to 1,500 brown bears – about one for every six people in town.
Four years after I took a leave from college to work in the Alaska fisheries, President Bill Clinton created the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, prohibiting the building of most roads in national forests. The government held more than 600 public hearings and collected 1.6 million comments, the overwhelming majority of which were in support of protecting more than 58 million acres of land across the country – including 9.6 million acres of forest in the Tongass.
But late last February, Air Force One stopped on the way home from Vietnam, and Trump met with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican. “Mike, any time you have a problem, you call me,” Trump announced.
Dunleavy did just that, following up with a letter requesting that the Tongass be fully exempted from the Roadless Rule to “save what’s left” of the timber industry. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was supposed to suggest a partial exemption from the rule in July, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, signaled in a recent radio interview that her expectation was for Trump to push for a full repeal of the federal law, allowing roads to be built through the forest. In a call with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Dunleavy on Friday, Trump promised as much, telling the governor that his logging request was “moving along.”
As so many of the folks commenting last fall to the Forest Service pointed out, Southeast Alaska’s economy cannot afford this return to the timber bonanza days. While logging once thrived here, the largest mill in Southeast today employs just a few dozen people. Meanwhile, the tourist industry creates 10,000 jobs, adding more than $1 billion a year to our economy, while fishing brings in another $1 billion.
As an Alaska presenter on Princess Cruises for the past three years, I can hear the collective intake of breath as we sail along the Inside Passage through a gauntlet of clearcuts. People come here from around the world to see ancient, pristine forests – not moonscapes. And our salmon need old-growth forests to spawn.
On top of it all, timber harvest is notoriously costly for the federal government – something the president should be paying attention to, considering the ballooning deficit. Since 1982, it’s been estimated that the Forest Service has lost more than $1 billion in Tongass timber sales. The federal government heavily subsidizes timber harvests, costing taxpayers some $20 million annually between 2008 and 2017.
Known in the 1990s as “the forest that sells trees for the price of a Big Mac,” today the Tongass deserves better. Retaining more atmospheric carbon than any other forest in the United States, public or private, the spruce, hemlock and cedar that Trump will expose to logging work as the first line of climate change defense, scrubbing carbon from the air and giving back an oxygen so pure that people arrive on our island to take what has come to be known as “forest baths.”
Here, dwarf pines draped in the lichen known as old man’s beard dot muskeg bogs. Red cedars gripping karst spice the forest air. Towering primeval stands of hemlock and spruce are so high, they hurt your neck to look at.
I don’t want to pass on a field of clearcuts to my daughters. Nor should they have to inherit a forest bored through by logging roads, with uniform, sterile secondary growth taking the place of behemoths that took root before the Renaissance.
As Trump might say, we have the biggest trees, the best trees – people come from around the world to see our trees! As our planet warms and the Amazon burns, we need the Tongass. Not only for our livelihoods or our legacy – but to breathe.
Brendan Jones is author of the novel “The Alaskan Laundry.”