Tenacity in the Tongass
North America’s Amazon
The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is one of the most important forests in the country — and Earthjustice has been fighting to protect it since the early 1970s. With its towering stands of old-growth spruce and hemlock trees, it is one of the largest temperate rainforests in North America and contains approximately 29% of the world’s remaining unlogged coastal temperate rainforest.
The Tongass teems with wildlife and biodiversity. It is home to black and brown bears, and Alexander archipelago wolves, a rare animal that is found nowhere else on earth. Salmon are the lifeblood of the forest and the region — bringing nutrients to the forest and providing sustenance for people and animals. Waters in the Tongass are the birthplace of 80% of the commercially caught salmon in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass is the traditional territory of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, the original inhabitants of this land since time immemorial.
Our history in the Tongass
Our Alaska-based attorneys have deep roots in the region and have fought in the courts through six presidencies to protect the Tongass from the irreparable harms of logging and extractive industries. From offices in Anchorage and Juneau, we work with groups with immeasurable knowledge of the land. Tribes in the region and conservation groups, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), have been some of our strongest partners and clients. In the early 1970s, in one of Earthjustice’s very first lawsuits as an organization, we represented local conservation groups and others in the first of what has now been more than 30 different lawsuits (and counting) to protect the Tongass. This first case held off logging on Admiralty Island until President Carter intervened to designate most of Admiralty Island a national monument.
Our work throughout the 1990s, and the public outcry over clear-cutting the Tongass, led to a dramatic change in federal policy on national forests in 2001. The landmark Roadless Area Conservation Rule bans most logging and road-building in 58 million acres of national forest roadless areas across the country. The celebration was short-lived in the Tongass, because in 2003 President Bush “temporarily” exempted the forest and pushed for massive logging — the exemption would last eight years. We fought hard during this time to hold the line in Tongass roadless areas — and we succeeded, thanks largely to litigation by a team led by longtime Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, and the work of our partners, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In 2011, we successfully reinstated these vital protections.
Attacks on the Tongass roadless areas renewed in 2017 and the last few years have been relentless. In December 2020, our team of lawyers, led by our attorney Kate Glover and NRDC co-counsel, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Alaska Native tribes and others to protect the Roadless Rule from a decision by the Trump administration to roll back the Rule on the Tongass. Thanks in large part to our advocacy with coalition partners, the Biden administration marked the rollback for review on day one. Our litigation is on hold to allow for this review, and we are hopeful, but prepared to go back to court if necessary. Inside and outside of roadless areas, we have successfully fought off many big logging projects in the Tongass. Last year, in one of our most significant victories ever for forests, we prevented the largest timber sale on national forest land in 30 years, sparing centuries-old trees on 1.8 million acres across Prince of Wales Island. Whatever happens with the Roadless Rule, we do not expect the timber industry to stop pursuing old-growth logging in the Tongass, despite the dire consequences.
One thing is clear: Earthjustice’s nearly 50 years of work in the Tongass has been extraordinarily successful. Litigation has played a crucial role and remains a critical tool in safeguarding the forest’s ancient trees. We have the power to permanently protect the Tongass and, alongside our partners, we will never rest until we do.
By Ann Marie Rubin
This special report was prepared for Justice Partners. Justice Partners are passionate and engaged supporters of Earthjustice who are serious about making the world a better place. Learn more.