A Beautiful World: Roadless wilderness under attack

A wilderness area inside a national forest.
A scenic view from inside Tongass National Forest.
Courtesy of benereshefsky | Flickr

There’s an incredible place in Alaska called the Tongass National Forest. At 16.7 million acres, it’s the largest national forest in the United States. It provides critical habitat to innumerable species of wildlife and ecosystems, including one of the world’s last intact temperate rainforests, which plays a crucial role in fighting climate change.

The Tongass harbors western hemlock, red cedar and a thousand-year-old spruce. It produces more salmon than all other national forests combined. It's the birthplace of one-quarter of the wild salmon that populate the West Coast. And 80 percent of the salmon caught in southeast Alaska each year come from the Tongass National Forest.

“Forty percent of the intact forest across our entire national forest system is in the Tongass,” said Ken Rait, a project director of the U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "And intact forest is basically a haven for biological diversity that is free from fragmentation. So, it's actually a place where nature can exist in a way that it has existed, and evolved, for millennia. There are so few places left where we actually can see these natural processes operate.”

Part of why the Tongass is so special is that it has vast expanses of roads-free wilderness. Rait says roads are a double-edged sword.

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“On the one hand,” he said, “they do provide access for the public. They also provide access for commercial activities that in many cases destroy the land. What we saw happening in the decades that led up to the roadless rule were vast clear-cuts across our national forest lands. I think people mostly think of national forest lands as being akin to national parks. But in fact, they're really not. They're used for a wide variety of commercial activities, including mining and logging and energy development. And these kinds of activities can have a significant adverse impact on wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and watersheds that provide clean drinking water for Americans coast to coast.”

The roadless rule he mentioned has protected the Tongass for two decades. It was put into place by the U.S. Forest Service, which itself was created during the Teddy Roosevelt era because of uncontrolled logging, grazing and mining.

Jim Furnish, a retired deputy chief with the U.S. Forest Service, recalls the dangerous days before the service existed.

“I think it was pretty much the Wild West,” he said. ”There was unfettered abuse of public lands. I think people finally said, ‘Hey, we've had a bellyful of that. There's got to be a better way of taking care of these public lands.’ So the national forests and the Forest Service were born in the early 1900s. It was one of the nation’s first visions of conservation. Teddy Roosevelt and his first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, set about creating a network of national forest that has grown and grown to today, where national forests occupy about 9 percent of the United States. That’s about 192 million acres. Along with other public lands like national parks and refuges, fully one-third of the United States is now public land.”

Most states have national forests and public land protected by the roadless rule, which restricts access to pristine wilderness. Furnish said 60 percent of the U.S. population’s drinking water emanates from national forest lands, as well as critical habitat for dozens of endangered species such as the California condor, grizzly bears and other species.

He said the Forest Service has grown and changed over the years. Its mission has evolved. He remembers one moment in particular when he knew things had to change.

He was working in Corvallis, Ore., as a supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest. “The Pacific Ocean coastal forest is filled with tremendous, huge trees,” he said. “But we still had this legacy on the landscape of 30, 40 years where they would just clear-cut their way through the forest. We had a huge winter storm that dumped very intense rainfall over a period of a couple of days and we had road washouts and landslides everywhere.

“I remember right after the storm passed, the skies opened up beautiful blue. I got in an airplane and I took a quick flyover of the coast range, and I remember being struck by the image of major rivers that were belching out these big brown ribbons of muddy water out into the blue Pacific. It was quite a stunning scene, almost like where the Blue and the White Nile meet.

“I remember looking down at that landscape, thinking that the Forest Service was responsible for a lot of that brown in the water, because of all the logging and roads. The landscape was signaling to me that we had a history to deal with, to rectify. Shortly after that plane flight we really set about to reform the timber management in the Siuslaw National Forest. We swore off clear-cutting big trees anymore.”

Jim Furnish is testifying this week on Capitol Hill because the Trump administration, supporting a petition by Alaska state government, is seeking to overturn the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest. He presented his argument for keeping pristine areas of the Tongass road-free, something Ken Rait also believes is critical to maintaining healthy forests, ecosystems and water sources.

Rait said logging in the Tongass is a concern for roadless wilderness everywhere. There’s a concern that if the roadless rule is lifted at Tongass, the largest national forest in America, forests across the country could be vulnerable.

“There's very much concern that this could open a floodgate of potential exemptions. In states like Minnesota, there's about 2.8 million acres of land of forest lands in the superior Chippewa National Forest, and about 62,000 acres of that are inventoried roadless areas. These places are actually quite important for watersheds, for habitat and for recreation by Minnesotans and so on. So there’s a concern that if the Forest Service goes forward and provides a full exemption on the Tongass, that other states will follow suit.”

Right now the Forest Service is in the midst of writing an environmental impact statement in order to consider the Alaska petition, and the agency is accepting public comments until Dec. 17. The Forest Service expects to issue a final decision sometime next summer. Anyone interested in joining the debate can leave a public comment on the U.S. Forest Service website.

Jim Furnish believes our nation’s roadless wilderness needs to be protected not only for the economic, social and environmental reasons, but for intangible reasons too.

“I do believe they feed our spirits,” he said. “Ultimately, I concluded after a long career of starting out with cutting timber with the best of them, that I had a transformation where I became a strong environmentalist.”

“We realize that forests globally hold the key to about one-third of the climate change solution,” he said. “Now we're seeing forests disappear rapidly in places like the Amazon Basin, all throughout the world. They're under great pressure. And here we have a chance in the United States to demonstrate some real leadership.”