Forests on Fire from the Arctic to the Amazon

It has never been more imperative to keep forests, like the Tongass, standing.

Tongass National Forest.
Tongass National Forest. Photo: John Schoen

At a time when forests are on fire, from Alaska to the Amazon, it has never been more imperative to keep other forests standing, like the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The old-growth trees in the Tongass comprise a climate stronghold, helping to sequester carbon and providing habitat for fish and wildlife that are experiencing impacts from a shifting environment. It makes zero sense (and costs $20 million in taxpayer subsidies every year) to keep sacrificing these old-growth forests to an unsustainable timber industry, especially at a time when wildfires and climate impacts threaten our food supplies and way of life.

 This summer shattered heat and drought records in Alaska. Fires are burning across the Arctic, including in Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia, where the embers dig deep into the tundra, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Wildfires near communities in Southcentral Alaska have destroyed homes and businesses, and threatened more, while consuming boreal forests across the region. Far to the south, but linked to Alaska’s forests by the migratory birds that use both Alaska and the tropics as their summer and winter homes, fires also rage in the Amazon.

As we read these alarming reports plastered across media sites, it is difficult to answer the question, what should we do? As a nation, a state, and a community, we need to contribute financial and personal support to families displaced by fires, and allow habitat (which constitutes homes for birds and wildlife) to regenerate. We must dedicate funding to studying how residents, both humans and wildlife, can actually survive and adapt to the many other anticipated changes, including more fires, flooding, and drought. However, we also must also recognize that sometimes doing something actually entails not doing something. In the Tongass, ending old-growth clearcutting should be seen as a proactive climate solution.

Tongass old-growth, particularly the large-tree old-growth that is targeted by timber interests, represents a powerful tool to combat climate change and its effects. Old-growth forests store more carbon than forests that are regenerating after logging. Logging actually releases more carbon into the atmosphere, from decomposition of the logging byproducts, the fossil fuel burned from logging equipment and transport, and the eventual composition of the wood products that end up in landfills. Old-growth forests are also less susceptible to forest fires compared to the dense second-growth forests that regenerate following a clearcut. And finally, the old-growth forests provide habitat that stays relatively cool for heat-sensitive species like salmon and forest birds in an era of stressful warming temperatures.

Protecting old-growth on the Tongass is vastly more valuable, in both economic and climate terms, than felling those trees and selling them, at a loss, where they disappear into overseas markets. Combatting global climate change requires global solutions, and protecting remaining old-growth on the Tongass is a key component in that global strategy. Now that our strategy must now address out of control wildfires from the Arctic to the Amazon, keeping old-growth standing in the Tongass has never been more important.

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