U.S. Moves to Restore Full Protections in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Proposal would help communities, economy, and wildlife and slow climate change

Navigate to:

U.S. Moves to Restore Full Protections in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
Two hikers navigate the Mt. McGinnis Trail with snowcapped mountains behind them in the distance.
Two hikers navigate the Mt. McGinnis Trail through the temperate rainforest of Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, with the Mendenhall Glacier in the background.
Robin Mulvey U.S. Forest Service

In a move that will benefit a range of wildlife, including salmon and brown bears, along with commercial fishing fleets, Indigenous Alaskans, tourism operators, and others in the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late November proposed restoring long-standing protections across 9 million acres of  Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. This would reverse a Trump administration decision that opened roadless areas to development in approximately half of the Tongass, the largest forest in the U.S. and the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world.

A broad swath of Alaskans opposed the 2020 rollback of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the Tongass, including tribes, the commercial fishing community of southeast Alaska, and tourism-centered businesses. In fact, a dozen southeast Alaska tribes petitioned the federal government at the time to maintain the full roadless rule protections in the Tongass to ensure sustainability of the land that supports traditional foods and cultural practices. That petition also requested the creation of a Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule.

Sustaining the roadless rule protections also makes economic sense: Fishing and tourism account for 26% of the region’s economy, while the timber industry accounts for only 1%.  Further, the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense reported that in fiscal year 2019, the U.S. Forest Service lost $16.1 million on timber sales in the Tongass and since 1980 has lost more than $1.7 billion on sales of timber from there.

Three bear cubs sit on a moss covered log as their mother looks for fish in Anan Creek.
Cubs sit on a log as their mother looks for fish in Anan Creek in the Tongass National Forest.
Mark Meyer U.S. Forest Service

“Restoring the Tongass’ roadless protections supports the advancement of economic, ecologic, and cultural sustainability in southeast Alaska in a manner that is guided by local voices,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Nov. 19 as he announced the decision to consider reversal. “The proposed rule is considerate of Alaska’s tribal nations and community input and builds on the region’s economic drivers of tourism and fishing.” As the agency noted in its statement on the proposal, Tongass National Forest is within the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, holds more biomass per acre than any other rainforest in the world, and stores more carbon than any other U.S. national forest.

A kayaker paddles toward Douglas Island with snowcapped mountains in the distance.
A kayaker paddles toward Douglas Island within the Tongass National Forest. Outdoor recreation, including hiking, fishing, and boating, is a major economic drivers for local communities around the forest.
Joseph Flickr

Since the original national roadless protections were put in place in 2001, the rationale for conserving the last roadless areas in the Tongass has been buoyed by numerous scientific studies showing that large, contiguous protected areas are necessary to sustain healthy ecosystems. Trees, for example, help lessen the effects of climate change by absorbing and storing carbon; the Tongass, because of its size, accounts for 8% of all carbon sequestered by U.S. forests each year.

In the Tongass, the roadless rule has protected ancient stands of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Alaska cedar as well as salmon habitat. Old-growth trees provide shade and reduce erosion, which keep streams cool and clear and enable salmon to continue to play their vital role in the ecosystem as food for people and wildlife, as a foundation for local economies, and—when the fish die after spawning—as fertilizer for the surrounding land. 

A woman fly-fishes on Admiralty Creek in the Tongass National Forest.
A woman fly-fishes on Admiralty Creek in the Tongass National Forest. Streams and rivers in the forest support large fish populations.
Joseph Flickr

The public has until Jan. 24 to comment on the Department of Agriculture proposal to reinstate roadless protections on the Tongass National Forest. You can submit comments electronically; by mail to Alaska Roadless Rule, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska 99802–1628; by hand at the Forest Service office at 709 W. Ninth St., Juneau, Alaska 99801-1807; or by email to [email protected].

Charles Streuli sews a button onto a Tlingit blanket made to represent the healing process between the tribes.
Charles Streuli, the fire, aviation, and forest management staff officer of the Tongass National Forest, sews a button onto a Tlingit blanket made to represent the healing process between the tribes.
Paul A. Robins U.S. Forest Service

By reinstating roadless protections to the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. can avert damage to the forest, honor Indigenous peoples, support local economies, fight climate change, and help ensure that the Tongass serves the interests of all Americans far into the future.

Ken Rait is a project director and Suzanne Little is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.

The front facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC.
ian-hutchinson-U8WfiRpsQ7Y-unsplash.jpg_master

Agenda for America

Resources for federal, state, and local decision-makers

Quick View

Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for emerging challenges, it makes government more effective and better able to serve the public interest.

Aerial view of the Chilkat River, near Haines, Alaska USA.
Aerial view of the Chilkat River, near Haines, Alaska USA.
Article

The Roadless Rule Is Good for the Tongass National Forest

Quick View
Article

Conservationists are hoping the incoming Biden administration will reverse the Trump administration’s removal of Roadless Area Conservation Rule protections for 9 million acres of southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, North America’s largest temperate rainforest.

Article

‘Truly Magical’ Tongass: Stunning Photos Show a Forest Under Threat

Quick View
Article

Photographer and conservationist Melissa Farlow grew up in landlocked Indiana, making her time on assignment in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—surrounded by massive old-growth trees, glaciers, roadless areas, and snowcapped mountains—“truly an adventure,” she says.

Joel Jackson
Issue Brief

Tongass National Forest Loses Vital Protections

Quick View
Issue Brief

Since 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have advanced five efforts that would dramatically alter protections for some 60 million acres of federally managed land in Alaska.

Tongass
Tongass
Article

U.S. Ends Roadless Protections in Tongass

Quick View
Article

On Oct. 27 , the U.S. Forest Service made official its decision to eliminate roadless protections for more than half of the 16 million-acre Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.

Tongass
Tongass
Press Releases & Statements

Pew Opposes Elimination of Tongass National Forest Protections

Quick View
Press Releases & Statements

The Pew Charitable Trusts today expressed disappointment that the U.S. Forest Service has finalized a regulation to eliminate the Tongass National Forest in Alaska from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The decision will enable commercial timber operations and construction of new logging roads in the most pristine areas of the nation’s largest national forest.