Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees

Looking Down on the Plight of the Tongass

Your Largest National Forest

The Tongass National Forest. Ever heard of it? How about : The Amazon. The Arctic. The Pacific Ocean. These huge tracts of land and sea are critical to life on earth and have vessels into the hearts of our lives – even if we may not know it. A fortunate few will get to dip their toes into all of them and it is not even in question that each experience in those environments will leave an indelible mark on their souls as they connect the people and animals inhabiting them. They quickly realize why protecting them is so damned important. For those who have never been, why should you care about the fate of another land? What will compassion for that place bring you in the long run? The abstract nature of such vast and unseen lands makes it hard to know enough to care. Today my mission is “simple” : connect you to a place I have grown to love and that you may have never seen or smelled. I hope that by the time you read the last word of this article and observe its last pixel you will have a sense of Tongass, its importance, and its plight.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
A long road extends through Old Growth forest in SE Alaska.

Acknowledging My Own Bias

This is not necessarily a light article and it contains both facts and my opinion based on those facts. I want you to trust what I say, so I think it is important that you understand some of my positions and personal views on conservation and resource use. I am a landscape user and a conservationist. My knowledge of the Tongass has been gained by using it while living on an island in rural Alaska for four years– my pantry is stocked with fish, deer, and berries.  I am not only a wildlife biologist, I am also a carpenter and maker-of-things. My small business of framing my imagery relies on wood to make products which I sell to people. I am not hypocritical in my views of conservation – I acknowledge resources are needed and that we need to manage the land to generate them. However, there are some resources that are simply not worth harvesting because of their impact they will have on my children’s children. If they are non-renewable and linked to the health of an ecosystem and its ability to combat climate change then it is pretty cut-and-dried for me : stay away from them and find some other way to do business. In the context of this article, there are many renewable forms of timber in the Tongass. Transitioning to those is key.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Old Growth forests butt up against the ocean.

A New Perspective

A new sense of perspective can change everything. The opportunity to see a new angle or hear a new voice can provide insight otherwise overlooked. A new perspective is where this article begins – through the summer I have been awed by insight I have gained while observing the land from helicopter, plane, and through the lens of my drone.  I have learned new things about places I travel through frequently and about how each decision is connected at the landscape level. My deeper appreciation for the landscape has led me to be a more adamant protector of it.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Beautiful mountains rise out of the Tongass National Forest. These mountains and elevation help contribute to the landscape diversity.

Landscape Diversity

The Tongass is a renowned “Salmon Forest”. Its landscape is bisected with small and large streams that host salmon. 79% of salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska are of fish that start in the Tongass and the average resident of SE Alaska uses 75 pounds of salmon per year. It can be hard to see the prevalence of rivers when you are standing in them or walking along their banks. However, from the air I was awed by the old growth stands bisected the flowing water and how beautiful the spires of old growth were near along the rivers.

A stream full of splashing salmon cuts its way through the Tongass National Forest

The Tongass is so, so much more than a stand of very tall trees – although that is what most people focus on.  It is an interwoven landscape of forest, streams, muskegs, and bogs. An eagle’s eye view will show you the brilliant blue water of the ocean contrasted against green conifers. The Tongass is a place where you can snorkel kelp reefs to touch starfish and urchins, emerge from the water, and dry yourself while sitting on the soft duff under the canopy of 150 or 200 foot trees that may be 800 years old.  When you stand among those large trees the quietness and fresh air make it feel like a holy place.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Brilliant blues of the ocean are contrasted against the greens of tall conifers. These large-tree forests along the coast are quiet and beautiful.

Rivers are not the only thing that connect the land to the water. Red and yellow muskegs may stretch for miles from mountaintop to coast. These wetlands are devoid of tall trees due to moisture and soil conditions and are natural filters during water’s progress downslope. As open, wet, land muskegs house an entirely different ecosystem of plants and life. Short pines replace towering spruces and small, round ponds replace babbling brooks. These wetlands are filled with short shrubs and grasses that provide important habitat for migrating and breeding birds.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
A dotted landscape of Old Growth and muskegs. Muskegs hold water and filter it on its way to the ocean. The ponds are important for birds and wildlife.
Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Muskegs can be vast areas of short grasslands and shrubs. They provide a completely different habitat than the tall old growth forests.

Roaded Areas

The presence of roads is impossible to miss as you look at the Tongass around Hoonah, Alaska. Many of the roads were used for logging and then transitioned to local use. You can see a few patterns when observing the road system from above such as young growth forests along the whole length of the road, and old growth in the river bottom. Landscapes like this are common throughout the Hoonah area. They represent the reality of a correlation : with the establishment of roads comes the sound of chainsaws and the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of old growth forest that will not regenerate to their former state until the year 2200 or more.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
A Coastal Brown Bear crosses over a road. Along the road you can see the young growth and old growth stands.
Over 6,000 miles of road have been built in SE Alaska to support the timber industry which boomed from 1970 until the early 2000s.

We need roads to move through the landscape, but roads can come with a consequence. Until I was in the air I never realized how large a landslide can be. These landslides often occur in steep slopes and roads in logged areas because of the changes to hydrology. Roads also bisect rivers and alter the ability for fish to move river/road crossings..

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
A large landslide cascades down a valley.

Climate Resilience

The climate of the world is changing fast and there are signs that its accelerating.  Since world leaders are not showing signs of making decisions to stem the flow of CO2 into our atmosphere, it is prudent to keep nature’s carbon “sinks” (natural carbon storage) areas in place. Those areas are shrinking daily. A recent report from the United Nations put our impact on the earth’s surface in perspective. The report reveals “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” When I read that it became apparent; the Tongass and the Native Alaskan Communities embedded in them since time immemorial are critical parts of the 25% of unaltered land on the earth.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Densely-packed Young Growth hold about 50% as much carbon as Old Growth forests.
Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Old growth trees are pretty easy to see from the air. Of course, they are tall, but their crowns are spaced far apart as well. When an Old Growth Forest is cut is releases about 60% of its carbon.

A recent article summarizing the message of Climate Scientist Dominick DellaSala at a recent meeting relayed some powerful statistics about the Tongass :

  1. An acre of old growth has about 1 billion needles that soak up carbon. 
  2. Old growth forests store 50% more carbon than logged forests. 
  3. A single 100-foot tree releases 11,000 gallons of water into the ecosystem.
  4. Logging releases 60% of the carbon stored in the forest

I cannot think of any statistics that demonstrate more fully the importance of how the 16,700,000 acres of the Tongass, the U.S.’s largest national forest, are in our climate change resiliency.

Current Global Response Insufficient : Roadless Modifications

On October 18th, 2019 the U.S. Forest Service entered into the Federal Register a recommendation that the 2001 Roadless Rule be lifted from the Tongass National Forest. This flies in the face of a majority of comments received from Alaskans and U.S. Citizens which favored keeping the protections in place. The 2001 Roadless Rule guaranteed that roads for logging could not be built in 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. These protections were set aside because of the acknowledgement of the global and regional importance of leaving the Tongass in its natural condition. The “Roadless Issue” is a complex one, but this decision can only have negative outcomes for wilderness of the Tongass seeing as the removal of road restrictions are being coupled with increased timber sales.

Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Interspersed in the forest, small muskegs create natural habitat openings that are good for wildlife. Did you know a recent report found that the U.S. Forest Service has lost 600 million dollars in the Tongass during timber sales in the last 20 years? That’s taxpayer dollars.

These five lines are the summary of the United Nation report I referenced above are applicable to the Roadless Rule, the plight of the Tongass, and the plight of global ecosytems:

Current global response insufficient;
‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature;
Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good
Most comprehensive assessment of its kind;
1,000,000 species threatened with extinction

— U.N. Report May 6, 2019

The Tongass Needs You

I have been told many times that “nothing is final until it is written in law” and that is completely true for this process. There are 5 alternatives to the Roadless Rule that do not remove protections from the entire forest. This is not an issue where anyone one side should get everything they want and it is up to us to ask for better than the “preferred alternative” of a full exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.  For the next 60 days you have ability to contribute your voice to this discussion and influence the fate of the Tongass. I hope I have helped you connect to the Tongass enough to weigh in. Here are your options:

  1. To learn more information contact me. photographer@ianajohnson.com. I would be happy to help you digest the issues of the Roadless Rule as it applies to the Tongass
  2.  Review project information and learn about the public review process by going to this USDA media release.
Tongass, National Forest, Aerial, Bird-eye, Roadless Rule, Old Growth, Spruce, Hemlock, Trees
Young growth and old growth butted against the mountains of Hoonah. There are proposed alternatives that can provide limited access to old-growth for the timber industry, contribute to Alaska’s economy, and continue the transition to young-growth logging. Those options are better suited to strike a balance between the future needs of our children’s, children and Alaska’s current needs. Make your voice heard!

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