Report: Sealaska legislation threatens rare Tongass rainforest habitat
Eric Myers, Director of Policy
ANCHORAGE, AK—Legislation pending in Congress threatens a significant portion of the last remaining very large-tree old-growth stands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest according to a report by Audubon Alaska.
Widely regarded as the “crown jewel” of America’s national forests, the Tongass contains a large portion of the world’s rare old-growth temperate rainforest. Worldwide, coastal temperate rainforest ecosystems occur in only 10 areas of the world and represent less than 3 percent of all forest cover in the world.
“The remaining stands of very large-tree old growth, the stands of really big trees, are extremely rare and account for only one-half of one percent of the 16.8 million-acre Tongass,” said Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s Director of Policy and report co-author.
Known as volume class 7, these remnant stands of very large-tree old growth are not only visually spectacular but also provide important habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon, brown bears, wolves, deer, Marbled Murrelets, Northern Goshawks and other wildlife.
Following decades of logging that systematically targeted the largest, most valuable trees — a controversial practice known as “high-grading” — half or more of the very large-tree old growth on the Tongass has already been cut down. The very biggest trees, the giants greater
Congress recognized the problem of high-grading on the Tongass and took action to ban the practice in 1990,” said Matt Kirchhoff, Audubon Alaska’s Director of Bird Conservation and co-author. “The legislation now being sought by Sealaska Corporation would not only return to ‘high-grading’ of the biggest and rarest trees on the Tongass, it would effectively mandate it.”
S 730, introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and HR 1408, a similar measure introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK), would re-open the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 and give the Sealaska Corporation unprecedented ability to obtain highly valuable public lands including large quantities of very large-tree old-growth timber.
Signed into law in 1971, ANCSA resolved aboriginal land claims in Alaska and was enacted by Congress with strong bi-partisan support. S 730/HR 1408 would allow the Sealaska Corporation to rewrite ANCSA to obtain approximately 65,000 acres for logging and development outside of areas where the corporation’s final land selections have already been made.
The Audubon Alaska report used U.S. Forest Service data to map the proposed timber selections that would be authorized by S 730/HR 1408, known as the “Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Job Protection Act of 2011.”
Report findings include:
- After decades of logging, very large-tree old-growth (class 7) now accounts for only 0.5 percent (82,000 acres) of the 16.8 million acre Tongass National Forest;
- Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections under ANCSA. Public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska Corporation under S 730/HR 1408 contain up to 12 times more acres of very large-tree old-growth than occurs on the lands the corporation has already selected under current ANCSA law.
- Under S 730/HR 1408 Sealaska Corporation could log up to 17 percent of the last remaining very large-tree old growth (class 7) on the Tongass.
- Public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska Corporation under S 730/HR 1408 are far more valuable than the corporation’s existing land selections, and include approximately $50 million worth of taxpayer-funded infrastructure.
Landmark tree on Kosciusko Island next to person, tall view (photo credit: Jack Gustafson)
Landmark tree on Kosciusko Island next to person, base view (photo credit: Jack Gustafson)
Towering trees at Saook Bay, Tongass (photo credit: John Schoen)
Sealaska Clearcut, Dall Island (photo credit: John Schoen)
 Old growth forest is categorized into classes. Very large-tree old-growth forest (class 7), is the rarest and most valuable forest type, including high-volume stands that have 50,000 board feet or more per acre. Class 7 is a very small subset of all old growth.  High-grading is defined as the disproportionate cutting, relative to occurrence, of the highest-volume stands on the Tongass. This practice dates back many decades when the biggest trees on the Tongass were systematically targeted for logging.