Opinions

OPINION: The Tongass can be a world leader in climate-responsible forestry

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One of us (DellaSala) is a rainforest researcher, the other (Furnish), Deputy Chief of the Forest Service under Chief Mike Dombeck. We keep coming back to the Tongass National Forest because of its world-class fisheries, wildlife and relatively intact landscapes. These natural assets are best served by the region’s approximately 9 million acres of roadless areas and about 5 million acres of old-growth rainforests that sustain the regions’ diverse recreational, hunting, fishing and traditional uses of Alaska tribes. Recognizing this, the Obama administration in 2016 directed the U.S. Forest Service to shift timber supply into young forests that have recovered from logging. Although the transition has been bumpy, now is the time to make good on the investment.

DellaSala was one of the first scientists to catalogue the extraordinary biodiversity in old-growth forests from the Pacific Northwest to the Tongass rainforest in the 1990s. His recent discoveries on the Tongass document how this single national forest, representing 9% of the entire national forest system, stores 20% of all carbon on the national forest system, an amount equivalent to 1.5 times US greenhouse gas emissions. President Joe Biden aptly referred to the Tongass, along with all the nations’ older forests, as “our planet’s lungs.”

Furnish helped drive the effort to complete the national Roadless Conservation Rule in 2001. He oversaw a successful transition out of old-growth logging on the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon during the heated spotted owl wars that became a model for the Pacific Northwest.

Our colleague, forest engineer Catherine Mater, was also one of the first to inventory young-growth forests on the Tongass, providing crucial data to support a timber industry transition on some 120,000 acres of already roaded young forests without taking old growth or entering roadless areas.

We now encourage the Forest Service to seize this “carpe diem” moment for the Tongass by implementing a three-pronged strategy. First, with the backing of hundreds of scientists, including some members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Tongass must protect all remaining old growth, roadless areas and the Tongass 77 watersheds, where carbon, fish and wildlife values are exceptional. This could serve as a strategic carbon reserve to slow down Alaska’s runaway climate change. Alaska climate change is occurring twice as fast as the rest of the nation, displacing Alaska Native villages as the permafrost melts. A small portion (about 20,000 acres) of young growth in roadless areas should be permanently protected to allow these forests time to recover carbon emitted to the atmosphere from prior logging.

Second, the transition into logging young growth near the existing open roads needs to speed up along with milling and infrastructure upgrades to process small logs. Efficient logging equipment can be moved in to meet the two-logs minimum per young tree standard for transition.

Third, the Biden administration needs to increase its congressional appropriations request to further support Southeast Alaska’s sustainable development strategy, giving preference to Alaskan tribes. The $25 million currently allocated is very important, but additional funds are needed to accelerate the transition and prioritize ecological restoration, including thinning overstocked young trees in roaded areas, upgrading culverts, repairing failing roads, and decommissioning at least some roads with low public use. Prince of Wales Island, notably, has 30% of the entire road network on the Tongass and the maze of roads is impactful to fish and wildlife.

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The Biden administration’s plan to end “large scale commercial old-growth logging” on the Tongass is a global model of climate and ecologically responsible forest management. The three steps noted will better insulate the region from the ongoing push-pull battles between unsustainable resource extraction and old growth protections.

Dominick A. DellaSala, chief scientist for wilderness nonprofit Wild Heritage, is an award-winning scientist of more than 300 peer-reviewed publications and books, including “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation.” Jim Furnish is a consulting forester living in New Mexico and is the author of “Toward a Natural Forest.”

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