Judge Sharon Gleason, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Alaska, ruled last week that the Forest Service violated federal law by approving future logging in the 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest.
I pay my bills here in Southeast Alaska, at least in part, by having short and intense conversations on airplanes. I help wedge wadered clients from all over the globe into DeHavilland Beavers, then drop in on some of the planet’s most spectacular temperate rainforest to make brief, intimate connections with the salmon, char, and trout that thrive in this unique environment. The conversations on the plane are of course just prelude to the main act—visiting the forest itself. Yet the flights offer important moments to contextualize the experience for folks visiting the Tongass National Forest. From our sub 2000-foot cruising altitude, it’s so much easier to see
connections between the glaciers, steep mountains, spruce-and-hemlock-clad hillsides, and our short high-gradient, salmon-producing streams.
I’d hope they could describe an ongoing Tongass narrative about providing average Americans amazing recreational opportunities on public lands.
Like any worthwhile guide, I want my clients to feel the fight of a good fish, and to get their trophy shot for Instagram. But it’s equally important to me that they understand that image’s place in the larger ecological picture. Recounting the details of their trip—sharing a run with a brown bear teaching her cubs to catch chum; rapidly retreating as a 22-foot tide floods a thousand yards of flat; watching salmon and dollies repeatedly slash at slowly stripped poppers—my hope is that my clients could string the moments into a larger story about our day fishing. I’d hope they could describe an ongoing Tongass narrative about providing average Americans amazing recreational opportunities on public lands.
I don’t always share this last point, but I also hope their experience in one small part of the nearly 17 million acres of the Tongass leads to an ethic of stewardship—and that they consider speaking up for conserving this national treasure so future generations can participate in this story, too. But a different summer airplane-conversation is putting the Tongass story at risk, thus creating just such an opportunity to speak up for the forest.
Perhaps you heard about the June, 2019, Air Force One discussion between Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy and President Trump? The conversation is infamous for rekindling efforts to despoil Alaska’s other world-class fishery, Bristol Bay. But while we were collectively digging out our No-Pebble-Mine shirts and stickers, and fighting again to save Bristol Bay’s fisheries from this ill-conceived mega project, our elected officials and appointed DC bureaucrats were quietly working to roll back protections on the spectacular fisheries here in Southeast Alaska, too.
The public lands story that emerges from this latter conversation is less about meaningful connection to ecological beauty, and more about dollar signs produced on the heavy labor of miners and loggers. Here’s the short version of the Tongass plan, hatched in that quick tarmac-exchange just outside of Anchorage: Under the President’s direction, the Forest Service would reduce protections for the Tongass by giving it a full exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule—the same rule that has helped conserve key areas of the Tongass from industrial, old-growth logging, in the process supporting healthy habitat for salmon, trout, and steelhead, thus enabling
guys like me to feed my family as part of $2.2 billion per year fishing and tourism industry.
“Fully exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule solely or primarily for the purpose of expanding timber sales is particularly unjustified and fiscally reckless given the Forest Service’s long history of losing millions of taxpayer dollars on these sales.”
Given these robust fish-based industries, it’s not surprising that most Alaskans think the rule is working. Commercial fishing groups came out against the rollback. So have powerful regional tribal groups. The tourism industry has been outspoken; even city assemblies in the region are chiming in to let everyone know they think the Roadless Rule is working. Forest Service workers in the area are bound to follow the guidelines from D.C., but private conversations with leaders and rank-and-file agency employees reveal that they also think the rule is effective. In fact, except for the handful of employees working at the last surviving old-growth mill in the region, and those ideologically committed to development at any cost (think: Alaska’s congressional delegation), almost everyone seems to agree that the Roadless Rule is working.
Lest I sound like a tree-hugging zealot, it is also worth noting that the development projects most often mentioned by elected officials as reasons to repeal the rule—small hydro-projects, roads to connect villages to regional electrical grids, small timber sales, even small mining projects—are all already possible under the current rule. In fact, every one of the 58 proposed exemptions to the Roadless Rule, for similar projects that have been proposed over the past 18 years, has been permitted. What isn’t possible under the current rule is industrial-scale clearcut logging in the small but ecologically critical remaining portions of true old-growth— precisely the type of timber that matters most in producing healthy runs of fish, especially coho and steelhead, our most-prized quarry.
So, from my perspective as a guide and an angler raising a family here in Juneau, this is simply an effort to revive an old-growth logging industry that has cost taxpayers millions in subsidies, and that has been kept on government-sponsored hospice for the past two decades. Logging only works here in the damp, rotting temperate rainforest with tremendous financial inputs from taxpayers. The non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) estimates that, from 1999 to 2018, the Tongass timber program lost the Forest Service in excess of $30 million per year—or more than $600 million over the past two decades. From TCS’s Dec 17 public-comment letter to the Forest Service: “Fully exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule solely or primarily for the purpose of expanding timber sales is particularly unjustified and fiscally reckless given the Forest Service’s long history of losing millions of taxpayer dollars on these sales.”
I do believe sustainable timber harvest is not only possible, but necessary, even on the Tongass. But rolling back the Roadless Rule does not mark a path toward this important goal. The trees—themselves literally made of salmon—are far more valuable as a keystone link in a fish-producing system than the forest products they might produce. The U.S. National Forest System includes 193 million acres, and the Tongass, at nearly 17 million, produces more salmon than all the other National Forests combined. Two of the islands I routinely fish with clients and with my kids have twice as many brown bears as people. The bears and the trees need these fish much more than Japan or China needs raw logs. What’s clear to me and to almost everyone who actually lives here, is that the days of industrial scale logging in Southeast Alaska have come and gone. Despite all the tax dollars spent propping it up, the timber industry has contributed less than one percent to local economies over the last two decades. It’s not coming back. It shouldn’t come back.
As anglers, we have a vested interested in pushing back against this ill-advised and nostalgia-driven plan to repeal an effective and popular Forest Service rule. So even if you haven’t had a chance to hop a Beaver to fish with me yet, and even if you never get a chance to connect with salmon or steelhead reared in what we call America’s Salmon Forest, I hope that you, too, will consider contacting the Forest Service and your elected officials to let them know what you care about. The “development-for-development’s sake” folks who don't care for the fish like we do are watching closely, as full exemptions to the Roadless Rule are under consideration in a host of other western states.
Kevin Maier teaches in the environmental humanities at the University of Alaska Southeast. He guides for Juneau-based Bear Creek Outfitters in the summer, and spends the rest of his time chasing his two boys around on skis and bikes.