"Tongass National Forest Day" Marred by Congressional Actions

Nation's largest national forest celebrates 100th birthday amid threats in Congress


Terry Winckler, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6716

Mayor Gavin Newsom has proclaimed today (Sept. 10) as “Tongass National Forest Day” even as actions pending at the federal level threaten many of the forest’s surviving stands of old-growth trees.

Located in Southeast Alaska, the Tongass is America’s largest national forest and has significant historic ties with the San Francisco Bay Area, Newsom noted in his proclamation, which honored the 100th anniversary of the forest’s founding.

Although plundered by logging interests for decades, the Tongass still has significant groves that are intact and support a myriad of wildlife, including salmon, brown bears and bald eagles — species that have been under threat of extinction in the rest of the country.

The celebration is marred by political maneuverings this month that pose serious threats to the forest, said Wanda Culp, a Native Alaska spokesperson who is coming to the Bay Area on Sept. 17 to seek public and political support for preserving the Tongass. Culp has campaigned against large-scale logging in the Tongass for two decades.

Culp overcame shyness to organize petition drives, letter-writing campaigns, and protests. She testified before political committees to curb logging and protect traditional uses of the forest. Culp began her advocacy after seeing an elder weep over a clear-cut on the backside of Hoonah Mountain in the early 1980s.

Culp, a native artisan who lives in Hoonah — the world’s largest Tlingit village — will be bearing gifts from the Tongass and accepting Newsom’s proclamation on behalf of all who are fighting on behalf of the forest.

The Tongass was declared a national forest on Sept. 10, 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was influenced by the writings of naturalist John Muir, a San Francisco resident who made many voyages to the Tongass in Southeast Alaska during the late 1800’s.

Muir’s trips in support of the Tongass are in sharp contrast to those voyages launched out of San Francisco by ships carrying loggers who devastated the forest’s old growth trees. Such destructive harvesting increased in the 1920’s when the U.S. Forest Service began seeking bids for logging the forest. The Forest Service has presided over logging of the forest since then, despite growing opposition to its policies by conservation-minded groups and individuals.

“It is astounding that the fate of the Tongass is still hanging in the balance 100 years after it was created,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm that represents a variety of Tongass-area conservation groups, including Native Alaskans.

Earthjustice, which has led modern-day legal efforts to prevent old-growth logging in the remaining wild lands of the Tongass, successfully challenged the Forest Service in court, which kept a harmful forest management plan from being implemented. But, a new version of the plan will be introduced in October. “The new plan is likely to be just as ruinous to the Tongass as the previous plan,” Waldo added.

The ball is now in the hands of Congress, having just passed legislation in June through the House of Representatives to put an end to  the subsidized logging practices that have been enshrined by the Forest Service and have destroyed some of the most valuable stands of the Tongass’ ancient trees,” said Sarah Wilhoite, also with Earthjustice.

Meanwhile, long-time logging proponent Sen. Ted Stevens is attempting to use his seniority to make sure the subsidy will be funded. “Stevens isn’t satisfied with the subsidy alone — he wants more,” said Wilhoite.

Stevens is trying to win support in the U.S. Senate to pass a legislative rider that will severely limit the amount of time citizens have to challenge the court-ordered Tongass forest plan. “His proposal limits legal challenges to 60 days, which constitutes an outrageous limitation on the rights of citizens to participate in how the forest is managed,” Waldo said.

“By strongly supporting the anti-subsidy provision and vigorously opposing any legislation limiting public rights or environmental protections for the Tongass, Sens. Feinstein and Boxer and the rest of the California delegation can help end the era of shameful, destructive special interest giveaways,” Wilhoite said. 

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