Oct. 28, 2020
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.
Earlier in the year, a federal judge rejected an enormous commercial timber harvest and road-building plan for the Tongass' Prince of Wales Island, in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of our clients.
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 of the Geos 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,” capturing 8% of all the carbon stored in U.S. 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.
And the new trees that grow back are not much help in the short term. A study by other scientists shows it can take more than 200 years for regrown forests to capture as much carbon as logging releases.
In the last years of the Obama administration, then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack planned to phase out old-growth logging in the Tongass.
Trump administration’s Forest Service jettisoned that aspiration, and it has approved plans for the largest old-growth logging project in the country in decades, on the Tongass’ Prince of Wales Island.
Earthjustice’s Alaska-based attorneys filed a lawsuit on May 7, 2019, challenging the massive timber sale. The lawsuit says the Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act and failing to comply with the agency’s own management plan for the Tongass.
The timber sale would allow for the logging of enough trees to equal a forest three times the size of Manhattan. More than half of the planned logging acres would have targeted old-growth trees — the very trees that are uniquely effective at absorbing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, and may have sprouted as saplings many centuries ago.
On the eve of the initial timber sale, Alaska District Judge Sharon Gleason granted a preliminary injunction, temporarily blocking the initial auction of 1,156 acres of old-growth trees. If not for the court decision, the Forest Service would have opened timber industry bids on these ancient stands of trees the very next day.
In March, the judge issued a ruling in the lawsuit, finding that approval of the sweeping logging plan violated several federal environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court found that the Forest Service “presented local communities with vague, hypothetical, and over-inclusive representations of the Project’s effects over a 15-year period.” It’s not yet clear whether the Forest Service will have to abandon the project entirely, because the judge has not yet decided on a legal remedy. But the ruling was an important win for old-growth forests, deer, wolves, and people on Prince of Wales Island.
The Trump administration Forest Service is also considering an even greater threat to the Tongass. The 2001 Roadless Rule — 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 prevents 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 is in the process of deciding whether to exempt Alaska from this critical policy. If proponents of this rollback get their way, old-growth forests will fall in a new round of clear-cuts.
Last fall, the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to repeal Roadless Rule protections across more than 9 million acres of the Tongass. “There is no good reason to roll back protections for the Tongass,” said Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau. “Earthjustice will oppose this attack on the safeguards wisely established by the Roadless Rule.”
On Oct. 28, 2020, the administration issued its final rule and record of decision, exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.
Destructive clear-cut logging disrupted every mode of indigenous life, Culp says — but she holds out hope for the future nevertheless. “I trust that my children and grandchildren will carry forth the importance of all living things in this place we call home,” she says.