Picture the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. Salmon wind their way through a cathedral of towering trees, bringing marine nutrients deep into the arteries of the forest. Bald eagles and bears feast upon the salmon and carry these nutrients to vegetation further inland. Sitka black-tailed deer nibble on the understory beneath these giant trees, and wolves step quietly in pursuit of those deer. This timeless ecological drama plays out against a backdrop of a large-tree, old-growth forest. This particular type of forest is vital to Tongass wildlife, but much of it has already been logged, and the remainder is threatened by a similar fate.
This large-tree old-growth forest of Southeast Alaska, so important to wildlife, is rarer than you might think. Half of Southeast Alaska is not forested at all, but rather is barren or covered by scrubby, non-forest plants. The other half is forest, but only one quarter of the region is considered productive old-growth; and only three percent of all of Southeast Alaska contains the large-tree, old-growth forest that loggers want and wildlife need. Even though it only covers three percent of the landscape, this large-tree old-growth is what makes Southeast Alaska and the Tongass so magnificent, and that’s why we’ve been fighting to save it for decades.
Audubon Alaska estimates that, historically, about seven percent of Southeast Alaska used to be characterized by these massive trees. But decades of “high grading” has cut this number down to the three percent remaining today. High grading is “cutting the best and leaving the rest” - like skimming the cream and leaving the ordinary milk. If the remaining large-tree old-growth is clearcut from the Tongass, we’ll be left with a more ordinary forest. If we want the Tongass to retain its ancient character, and remain an intact and healthy ecosyetm for birds and wildlife, we must protect the incredible large-tree old-growth that still exists in places like roadless areas, the T77 watersheds, and other sensitive areas.
Yet some bills in Congress aim to further pilfer the Tongass of its emblematic trees. The Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Transfer Act (AMHT bill) has already been introduced in both the House and Senate and has gone through “markup” in a Senate committee, spearheaded by Senator Lisa Murkowski. This bill is now in a position where it could be attached as a “rider” to other more urgent legislation, such as a bill that appropriates money for government agencies, and thus gain momentum for passage. If the AMHT bill passes in both House and Senate, then it only needs to be signed into law by the President.
We see two main problems with the AMHT bill. First, the public should have an opportunity to weigh in on important issues raised by this land transfer. For instance, this land swap would continue to concentrate clearcut logging on Prince of Wales Island. The wolf population on Prince of Wales Island has seen dramatic declines in recent years, yet the bill fast-tracks the transfer without public input on this sensitive and complex topic. Second, the AMHT bill is just one of several land transfer bills that could pop up this session, and is the latest one to try chipping away at the large-tree old-growth remaining in Southeast Alaska. Another bill, the State National Forest Management Act, introduced by Congressman Don Young in the House, would give two million acres of the Tongass to the State of Alaska, for mandated logging, with the choicest large-tree old-growth pre-selected. We also expect to see old bill language, to privatize additional acres in the Tongass, repackaged and reintroduced again this Congress.
The Tongass National Forest has long suffered from a “death by a thousand clearcuts.” Bills like the AMHT bill are the 501st cut, the 502nd cut, and so on. It's time to stop clearcutting old-growth in the Tongass. If and when these bills gain traction, Audubon Alaska will ask for your voice to help oppose the endless high grading and instead support transitioning the region's communities toward more sustainable industries such as recreation, fishing, and wildlife guiding.