There are only seven temperate rainforest floral regions on earth, all in coastal settings at higher latitudes where annual precipitation of 40 to 100 inches is common and seasonal droughts are rare. Most of these forests are quite small in area, forming only in places at lower elevations beneath steep topography where moisture laden onshore airflow prevails year round. The largest temperate rainforest in the world is found along the shores of the Alexander Archipelago of southeast Alaska, British Columbia and northwestern Washington. Wildfires are almost unheard of here, and the primary source of natural disturbance is wind.
Take a flight from Seattle to Sitka on a clear day, however, and you’ll see evidence of a different type of forest disturbance. Looking out the window, the dominant features you see are ocean inlets and mountain tops—water, rock and ice. But crowded in the valleys and along gentler slopes you’ll spot dark bands of vegetation. For the first hour of the flight, while over British Columbia, these dark bands are everywhere scarred and pockmarked with the characteristic patterns of roads and clearcuts. The view doesn’t change much as you cross into the southern part of southeast Alaska, except you notice that the dark bands of vegetation are gradually shrinking in size and have fewer pockmarks. The tree line is at a lower elevation here, and valleys are narrower. To some extent, this phenomenon has served to stymie the economics of timber extraction, and as a result, the further north one travels, the fewer signs one sees of industrial scale logging.
Most of the land in southeast Alaska is contained within the 16.9 million acre Tongass National Forest. Rock, ice, scrub and bog cover about 67% of its surface. The remaining 33% is covered to some degree with forest, but about half this acreage is steep and unsuitable for logging (and poor wildlife habitat), or is otherwise made up of scrawny trees that are generally considered “uneconomic.” Only about 17% of the Tongass is suitable for timber harvest, and about a quarter of that, the best of the best, has already been logged. What remains is the biological heart of the region that must be preserved so that it may continue to provide viable habitat for wildlife and clean water for spawning salmon. These resources, in turn, support sport hunters and fishers, recreationists, tourists and the subsistence economies of southeast Alaska’s remote communities.
While the Forest Service has recently adopted a number of fairly progressive forest management policies that should help protect much of the Tongass’s remaining stands of large old-growth trees, there continues to be a need for vigilance. As recently as twenty-five years ago, logging activities on the Tongass were effectively converting about 40 square miles per year of productive forests to clearcuts. Some residents of southeast Alaska remember those days with fondness and would like to see new roads built and new mills constructed for the production of products like wood pellets for domestic heating and cellulosic ethanol for automotive fuel. These types of developments may indeed have some future role to play here, but they must be scaled according to the forest’s ability to sustainably supply wood fiber from second-growth areas, while protecting remaining old-growth stands.
Actions to Date
The Boat Company (TBC) has a long history of working to protect Tongass forest lands. In fact, the reason we originally established our cruise operation in 1980 was in order to attract a small but steady stream of visitors to the area so that they might see for themselves the need for conservation. Over the last 32 years, our cruises have helped create a robust constituency for Tongass old-growth protection, and the number of individuals in this group keeps growing by a few hundred every year.
Management decisions on all National Forest lands, including the Tongass, are developed and implemented according to provisions in federal law, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The Forest Service issues regular notices for proposed actions on the Tongass, as required by NEPA, and TBC regularly reviews and submits comments on a wide variety of projects. These include such items as aerial spraying of herbicides for controlling alder growth, timber sales, trail building, road construction or decommissioning, outfitting/guiding services, campground maintenance, permits for mineral resource development, hydroelectric projects with associated transmission line corridors, fish enhancement projects, stream habitat restoration efforts, invasive plant remediation/removal and general silviculture treatments such as young-growth thinning.
Occasionally TBC engages in legal action, going to court in defense of good forest conservation policies. During the winter of 2009-10, we joined a group of Alaska natives from the Organized Village of Kake and several other co-plaintiffs in challenging the George W. Bush era exemption of the Tongass NF from the Clinton era Roadless Rule which protected undeveloped forests within inventoried roadless areas from commercial timber harvest. Legal representation for this case was provided by attorneys from EarthJustice, and in March 2011, US District Court Judge Sedwick from Anchorage ruled in our favor and reinstated the former forest protections.
The US Forest Service plays a critical role in forest conservation in this area. As may be expected in such a large National Forest as the Tongass, there are many layers of FS bureaucracy through which one must navigate in order to have any hope of influencing management decisions. TBC occasionally works with both Regional Forester Beth Pendleton and Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole. But we also are in regular contact with the Sitka, Admiralty and Juneau District Rangers and many other FS staff with specialties ranging from archeology to visitor services.
Non-profit entities with which we have collaborated on forest issues include Trout Unlimited, Audubon Alaska, Greenpeace, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Sitka Conservation Society, EarthJustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Need for Future Action
As mentioned previously, there is an ongoing need to remain alert to the possibility of a return to the bad old days of unsustainable and environmentally damaging logging practices. The recent deep economic recession has provided an especially ripe environment for advocates of industrial scale logging to pitch their pro-jobs-at-any-cost arguments to law makers. Fortunately, growing sensitivity toward balancing the federal budget has help harden the public’s resolve against deficit timber sales and other money-losing boondoggles. But new proposals emerge regularly, nonetheless. The NEPA process provides the public with good tools for analyzing and ample opportunities for influencing FS decisions regarding new proposals for timber harvest on the Tongass, but the process requires a high level of engagement on the part of TBC staff.