Getting Roads Out of the Tongass (Again)

A federal court bars Alaska from building logging routes through vital parts of the forest.

Update: On March 28, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

Update: On October 24, the Alaskan government petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the court of appeals' decision.

At 17 million acres, southeastern Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the United States, and one of just a handful of relatively intact temperate rainforests left in the world. Its rare old-growth stands of cedar, spruce, and hemlock not only provide irreplaceable habitat for dozens of species of birds—including Marbled Murrelets and the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles—they also serve as a globally significant carbon sink, storing nearly 10 times more carbon than any other U.S. national forest. During the past half-century the timber industry has eaten away at the Tongass, to the alarm of conservationists who have fought to end old-growth logging; this summer, after years of litigation, a federal court granted the greens a victory by closing off more than half the forest to timber harvesting.

The court’s decision focused on the Roadless Rule, which was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in 2001 to prevent habitat fragmentation by blocking the creation of new roads in national forests and prohibiting timber cutting in designated remote areas. For most of the rule’s existence, the Tongass has been exempt, the result of a 2003 lawsuit by the state. Conservation groups countered with their own suit in 2009, and over the next few years the exemption was lifted and then reinstated. Finally, in July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—the last stop before the Supreme Court—overturned the exemption, effectively putting nearly 10 million acres of the Tongass off-limits.

But the Tongass isn’t safe quite yet. Timber-happy Alaska politicians, like U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R), have vowed to continue to fight for the exemption, possibly by asking the Supreme Court to take up the case. And even if the Roadless Rule remains in effect, it won’t protect old-growth trees from logging operations already in place, including the 6,000-acre Big Thorne timber project, which began in April. That’s why Audubon Alaska and other groups have been pushing for an amendment to the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan, now being modified by the Forest Service, that will require a transition away from large-scale old-growth logging and toward sustainable timber practices that protect the integrity of one of our last great places.