Defending America’s Climate Forest

Earthjustice is defending the Tongass National Forest, a key weapon in fighting climate change

Wanda Culp and her colleagues at WECAN are fighting to defend the Tongass from logging.
Wanda Culp and her colleagues at WECAN are fighting to defend the Tongass from logging. (Michael Penn for Earthjustice)

By Rebecca Bowe

The Latest On Jan. 25, 2023, the U.S. Forest Service reinstated Roadless Rule protections across the Tongass rainforest in Southeast Alaska. Tribal leaders, recreational small-business owners, commercial fishing operators, and conservationists cheered the agency’s restoration of this critical safeguard. The long-awaited move restores federal protection — from industrial logging and damaging road-building — to just over 9 million undeveloped acres in America’s largest national forest.

Wanda Culp lives in one of the most important woodlands in the world. Here, old-growth trees of the Tongass National Forest still stand tall along the coastline and islands of Southeast Alaska.

Culp belongs to the Tlingit people, who have carefully stewarded this land since time immemorial.

“The ice fields are quickly melting,” says Culp, who lives in the village of Hoonah. “[They’re] creating miles of silt in the Tongass salt waters, choking all salt- and freshwater life, and causing steadily increasing high and low tides due to unusually warm temperatures.”

What the Tlingit are witnessing is human-caused climate change, and they are fighting to save one of humanity’s last best defenses: the trees.

For decades, Culp, her colleagues at the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN), and Earthjustice have worked to stop old-growth logging here. That struggle is taking on global importance as new research reveals the Tongass to be a major buffer against climate change.

“The Tongass has been called ‘America’s Climate Forest’ due to its unsurpassed ability to mitigate climate impacts,” says Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of WECAN. “For decades, however, industrial-scale logging has been destroying this precious ecosystem and disrupting the traditional lifeways, medicine, and food systems of the region’s indigenous communities.”

The Tongass stores hundreds of millions, if not over a billion, tons of carbon, keeping the heat-trapping element out of the atmosphere.

Conservation scientist Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a Project of the Earth Island Institute, knows all too well the importance of the Tongass for fighting climate change. “If you hug a big tree, you’re actually hugging a big stick of carbon that has been taking up and storing up carbon for centuries,” he says.

When DellaSala began his career as a young research ecologist, he landed a contract with the U.S. Forest Service to study the impacts of old-growth logging in the Tongass. This was the late 1980s, when the timber industry routinely clear-cut ancient, towering trees from the nearly 17-million-acre temperate rain forest. Things reached a point of absurdity when even some of DellaSala’s study plots were about to be fed into the jaws of industry.

DellaSala remembers asking the Forest Service, “Hey, wait a minute, could you go somewhere else with these chainsaws? Because we’re right in the middle of this study that you funded.”

Scientists have long understood that logging old-growth forests triggers a cascade of negative effects on wildlife, eroding the biodiversity of places like the Tongass. More recently, DellaSala and research collaborators have shown that old-growth logging worsens climate change.

Old-growth trees, growing in a coastal zone at northern latitudes, are mighty stalwarts in carbon sequestration. The Tongass is what DellaSala terms “a national champion,” storing some 40% of carbon contained in U.S. national forests.

Clear-cutting old-growth, on the other hand, transforms ancient forests into carbon emitters.

DellaSala authored a report analyzing a Forest Service plan to log more than 43,000 acres of Tongass old-growth and nearly 262,000 acres of young-growth. His calculations showed that this would have the same emissions impact as adding four million vehicles to Alaska’s roads — and keeping them there for a century.

Under the Trump administration, the Forest Service withdrew protections for the Tongass established under the 2001 Roadless Rule. This critical policy, which Earthjustice attorneys have successfully defended several times in court, is one of our country’s greatest land conservation measures.

In Alaska, the Roadless Rule prevented road-building in wild areas that would otherwise be targeted for even more publicly subsidized old-growth logging. Yet the Trump administration’s Forest Service exempted Alaska from this critical policy. If the Biden administration does not take steps to reverse course, old-growth forests will fall in a new round of clear-cuts.

The U.S. Forest Service rule change affects more than 9 million acres of forest in the Tongass. “There is no good reason to roll back protections for the Tongass,” said Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau. “Earthjustice is in court defending the safeguards wisely established by the Roadless Rule.”

Today, the Forest Service under the Biden administration is still considering whether to fully reinstate the Roadless Rule or take a different approach in handling the Trump administration’s decision to rollback the policy.

Meanwhile, scientists and conservationists have called on the new administration to establish a moratorium on industrial logging in mature, carbon-dense forests in both the Tongass National Forest and the Pacific Northwest while it examines how to permanently protect these irreplaceable landscapes as buffers against climate change.

Back in Alaska, Culp says that over the decades, clear-cut logging has disrupted every mode of indigenous life. Nevertheless, she holds out hope for the future. “I trust that my children and grandchildren will carry forth the importance of all living things in this place we call home,” she says.

Originally published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.

Rebecca Bowe reports on the litigation docket of Earthjustice’s Northwest and Alaska offices.

Earthjustice’s Alaska Office has locations in Juneau and Anchorage. Famed for its immense wilderness and abundant wildlife, the state is home to our country’s only Arctic region, the Tongass National Forest, and a rich Alaska Native culture that dates back millennia. Since 1978, attorneys in our Alaska regional office have safeguarded public lands, waters and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining and logging.