A huge step forward for the Tongass National Forest

Tongass steelhead. Photo by Bryan Gregson
By: Tim Bristol
Years ago, an old time Tongass political operator, whose name I will not reveal since I was not able to talk to him before writing this, compiled a set of “Rules of the Tongass,” that ring as true today as they did during the Tongass timber wars of the 1990s. 
There are quite a few rules on the list but one really stands out for me in the wake of the of the release of the Forests Service’s new draft plan for our biggest and best national forest. The rule is as follows: 
“If a Tongass argument begins with a number, the argument never ends.”
This rule is so accurate as to be obvious and is proving out again as many interests lose themselves in a numerical wilderness filled with figures about board feet and acres while missing the bigger picture: The US Forest Service just announced it is ending old growth logging in the Tongass and it is prohibiting logging in some of the most important fish and wildlife habitat in Southeast Alaska – areas that until now were still open to roadbuilding and logging. 
The bottom line is, on the historical timeline for this magnificent and long embattled piece of the American landscape, today’s announcement is a huge step forward.
Photo by Earl Harper
In 1995, the year I moved the Southeast Alaska to take a job with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, truly huge volumes of the old growth forest were logged from public lands in Southeast Alaska, many miles of road were carved into pristine areas and a pulp mill in Ketchikan was the largest polluter in EPA region 10. And if the situation on the ground was bad, the political climate was worse. Bills were introduced to mandate logging levels with no consideration to other forest uses and every federal budget cycle filled us with dread as the late Senator Stevens attempted to manage the Tongass via amendment to must-past spending legislation – the dreaded rider tactic that sucked up so much time and energy that could have been applied in other, more positive and forward-thinking ways. 
As tough as the sledding was during that time, it was an order of magnitude better than for the previous generation of activists who fought to prevent the pulping of Admiralty Island and labored tirelessly for the passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act. 
The history of citizen action in Southeast Alaska is almost as rich as the land and waters that sustain the region and passions for such an amazing place run high. But if you take a step back and look at all that has been won, the Tongass narrative, over time, is an overwhelmingly positive one and the Forest Service’s latest vision for the forest is, for first time, well…visionary. 
Photo by Ashley Hegewald
There is a lot more work to be done. Disgruntled special interests, still pining for the heavy logging of the past, will work to roll back or eliminate the best parts of this plan and many details in the huge document need follow-up and possibly, improvement. But for today, let’s set the numbers aside and dream of places like Port Houghton –still the most amazing wild place I have ever visited; East Kuiu, Upper Tenakee, Port Stewart, Vixen Inlet, Essowhah Lake, Lake Eva, and many more Tongass watersheds, now safe and secure for this and future generations. You can view all the “greatest hits” at TU’s website here.
Tim Bristol the Director of the new conservation initiative SalmonState, served as TU’s Alaska Program Director from 2005 to July 2015. He lived in Southeast Alaska for nearly 20 years.

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