The Tongass National Forest: An Ecosystem on the Brink


The Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska is big, wet and still at least partly wild. At 16.8 million acres the Tongass is the size of West Virginia. The Tongass is one of the few remaining temperate rainforests in the world; it is the largest remaining part of the Pacific Coast rainforest, which once followed the coast south all the way to the redwoods of California. Unlike most other national forests, a large proportion of the Tongass is still intact; that is, it hasn't been roaded or logged. President Clinton implemented the Roadless Rule to protect that small fraction of all national forest lands that have not yet been penetrated by roads. The Roadless Rule was thoroughly reviewed and had wide support in the scientific community and among citizens in Alaska and the Lower Forty-eight, everybody except the timber industry and their camp followers. President Bush promptly rescinded the Roadless Rule for the Tongass and is now considering it for the rest of the country's national forests.

Although much of the Tongass has already been logged, much old-growth remains and the ecosystem still supports wolves, bear, eagles and healthy salmon runs. If the people of Alaska want to see what the southeast will look like if they continue to clear-cut the Tongass, they need only look at the lower forty-eight states where we have bits and pieces of forest ecosystems in various degrees of dysfunction: wolves, grizzlies and cougars are persecuted if they stray out of their enclaves; wild salmon runs are either in trouble or extinct; and stands of old-growth trees are set aside as novelty items in parks and wilderness areas.

We spoke with John Schoen about his years of work in southeast Alaska and the prospects for conservation in the Tongass.

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