One Step Forward, One Back for America's Rainforest

Will the plight of a rare Alaskan wolf save the Tongass, our largest national forest?

Bears hunt for salmon in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
Bears hunt for salmon in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. (USDA Photo)

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For the Tongass National Forest, last week brought a long-overdue agency action that helped offset an unfortunate court decision.

The Tongass stretches 500 miles by 100 miles through the islands of Alaska’s southeast panhandle. In a day you can walk from its cold North Pacific waters up salmon-filled streams, through lush ancient rainforest to jagged alpine peaks overlooking massive icefields and glaciers.

Sadly, six decades of clearcutting the best stands of old-growth forest, facilitated by 5,000 miles of logging roads, has decimated much of the habitat in this magnificent place.

This legacy of destruction forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to recognize, on March 28, that the forest’s Alexander Archipelago wolf may need to be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The clearcutting has destroyed so much habitat for Sitka black-tailed deer, the wolf’s principal prey, that there will not be enough deer to go around for the wolves and human subsistence hunters. And all those logging roads have made the wolves vulnerable to excessive trapping and hunting.

While the threats to this species are sobering, the official recognition of these risks may be a first step to curtailing further habitat destruction and roadbuilding.

This step forward, however, came closely on the heels of a court decision that could open millions of Tongass acres to renewed roadbuilding and clearcutting.

In 2003, the Bush administration decided to exempt the Tongass—”temporarily”—from the nationwide Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Roadless Rule was a signature achievement of the Clinton administration, protecting nearly 60 million acres of wild backcountry areas of the national forests.

The temporary Tongass exemption was intended to last a short time while the agency considered a new permanent rule for Alaska, but the lasting rule never came. Depleted of patience with the continuing loophole, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council jointly represented a southeast Alaska Indian tribe, tourism businesses and conservation groups in a lawsuit challenging it.

We won in the lower court, which threw out the exemption in recognition that the reasons given for it were arbitrary and unsupported by facts. The Forest Service accepted the decision, but the state of Alaska appealed. On March 26, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on a 2–1 vote, sending the case back to the district court to address other defects in the exemption.

We will fight on.

In the meantime, the state of Alaska’s continuing attempts to re-fight the roadless area battles of the 1990’s become increasingly quixotic. For the time being, the Forest Service has no plans to extend new timber sales into roadless areas. While the agency is currently engaged in a badly misguided attempt to expand old growth timber sales on the Tongass’s already overcut road system in the short term, the agency has also commenced a process aimed at phasing out large-scale old growth logging altogether. Right direction—too slowly.

The Fish & Wildlife Service’s recognition of the wolf’s plight may be just the trigger needed to end the expanded timber sales and speed up the transition out of industrial old growth logging on the Tongass—not only in the roadless areas, but in the whole forest. Stay tuned.

Tom worked in Earthjustice's Alaska regional office. Cases in his docket included protection of roadless areas and old growth habitat in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, and protection of water bodies from acid mine drainage and other mining-related water pollution.

Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.