Why I Fight for Our Forests: Earthjustice's Tom Waldo
(This is the second in a series of Q & As with Earthjustice staff who work to protect our nation's forests and their critical natural resources and wildlife. Protecting our national forests, in particular, is essential for the future of our nation. The Obama administration recently proposed new planning rules that may leave our National Forests in peril. National forests are the single largest source of clean drinking water in the United States, serving 124 million Americans. Tom Waldo joined Earthjustice in 1989 and is a staff attorney in the Juneau, Alaska office.)
EJ: Tell us about your work to protect national forests.
TW: In a couple dozen cases or more, I have represented a wide variety of clients in lawsuits and administrative appeals seeking to protect the old growth of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska as well as pristine roadless areas in all the national forests. The main threat we have countered is clearcut logging and its associated road construction, though this work sometimes encompasses mining operations, proposed highways, and the like. Besides the litigation, we work closely with our clients in administrative and Congressional advocacy, ensuring that our legal and political strategies are integrated.
EJ: How did this work begin?
TW: I started my job with Earthjustice in September 1989. Just two months later, the Forest Service approved a five-year logging plan under an ongoing 50-year contract with a giant pulp mill in Sitka, Alaska. The plan authorized logging of several hundred million board-feet of timber—tens of thousands of acres of clearcuts in prime old-growth habitat, with miles of new roads into pristine watersheds. Within a few weeks, we filed a lawsuit challenging it, and I have been working on Tongass issues ever since. Fortunately, the pulp mills and the huge sales needed to supply them are now things of the past.
Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo in Alaska's gorgeous Tongass National Forest, the country's largest National Forest. Photo by Jan Rutherdale.
EJ: Why is this work meaningful to you?
TW: Among many reasons, I am inspired by our clients. We represent Native villages whose ancestors have occupied this land for a thousand years. We represent entrepreneurs who have started nature-based tourism businesses catering to the million visitors who come to the Tongass each year. We represent commercial fishermen who make their living in the waters surrounding the countless islands of the Tongass. All of them share a deep bond with the land and want to protect its abundant fish, wildlife, and old-growth forests. Our litigation has given me the opportunity to meet many of them, to learn their stories, and to understand why our work is important to their lives.
EJ: What's your favorite national forest memory from childhood?
TW: I grew up in Minnesota and used to take canoe trips every summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in the Superior National Forest. I loved it and still return to Minnesota once every few years to retrace those steps, or ripples as the case may be. Those were formative experiences.
EJ: Do you take your family to any national forests?
TW: It is a way of life for us. Living in Juneau, we are surrounded by the Tongass and do most of our recreation in it. My kids are away at college now, but both of them were born and raised in Alaska. Virtually every weekend we were out doing something in the Tongass: hiking, running, kayaking, skiing (of many varieties), ice-skating, camping, fishing, mountain biking, and staying in remote Forest Service recreational cabins. With the kids away at school, my wife Anitra and I still do these things together, often with our friends. One of our sons works in the summer as a glacier guide on the Tongass, a job he loves.
EJ: What's special about the Tongass?
TW: For one thing, it’s huge—500 miles long and 100 miles wide, spread out over 1000 islands and the coastal mainland. It encompasses mountains, ocean, glaciers, icefields, and old-growth rainforest. We have brown bears, black bears, wolves, eagles, whales, sea lions, all five species of Pacific salmon, and more. Even after living here over 20 years, it continues to awe me.
EJ: How can people help protect their National Forests?
TW: Take action here! Telling the Obama administration to strengthen its proposed planning rule is one of the most important things you can do right now for our forests.
Beyond that, visit them and enjoy them. Be part of a constituency to protect them. Pay attention to the threats that frequently surface. Write your members of Congress. Support and vote for candidates with good records protecting public lands. Write the Forest Service about its proposals. Support groups like Earthjustice and our clients that work to protect them.