Clearcutting in the Tongass: A clear-cut issue?
Policy allowing deforestation in largest U.S. national forest finally overturned.
Thursday, March 31, 2011 - 16:52
March 4, 2011 brought a significant victory for Greenpeace and other plaintiffs. Years of legal struggles, procedural debates and political changes culminated in the decision to reinstate Clinton-era regulation that prevented the logging of hemlock, cedar and spruce trees in large stretches of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Back in 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass from the National Roadless Rule, allowing for widespread deforestation to occur. This month, federal district Judge John W. Sedwick legally overturned this policy, noting that the reasons for the exemption were "implausible, contrary to the evidence in the record," and in conflict with judicial precedents.
So why does the Tongass National Forest matter? Many Americans have never even heard of it, and even fewer realize that, at nearly 17 million acres, it is our nation's largest national forest. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the Tongass is technically a rain forest, home to an abundant supply of healthy fish, clean water, ancient spruces and rugged mountains. In addition, this forest supports vibrant populations of wildlife such as moose, bears, wolves, wild salmon and the highest concentration of bald eagles in the country. Without the ancient forest canopy, the area would become dry and subject to increasingly rapid temperature fluctuations, which can lead to droughts and forest fires in the short term and climate change and carbon buildup in the long term. In short, the Tongass is one of the last remaining places on our planet where the intricate relationship between land, water, wildlife and humans is sound.
So it should come as no surprise that conservationists rejoiced when the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was implemented during the last days of the Clinton administration in 2001. This policy protects the last remaining "wildlands" in our national forests, placing about nine million acres of the Tongass off limits to virtually all road building, logging and commercial development. Unfortunately, incoming President George W. Bush quickly rescinded it, giving authority over such decisions to individual states instead. Consequently, the Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, Mark Rey, declared the Tongass' roadless areas open to timber management in 2003. Rey is a former timber lobbyist.
The Tongass quickly became a symbol in a much larger contest of beliefs about what frontiers are for and what the truest measure of a nation's progress should be. The debate was on — and has continued to rage in courtrooms and newspapers alike for the past seven years. Let's take a look at some of the key issues:
Defenders of clearcutting (officially defined by the NRDC as "the felling and removal of all trees from a given tract of forest”) will stimulate the economy by providing jobs and saleable resources. In the case of the Tongass, Alaskan officials hope that rescinding the Roadless Rule to allow for clearcutting will revive the state's dwindling timber industry. The opposition points out that this policy is not actually fiscally responsible. As a Boston Globe editorial explained in 2004, "Each year, taxpayers generously subsidize the work the U.S. Forest Service does for timber companies in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. All of the surveying, road building, and administrative work exceeds revenues paid to the government by the companies by $30 million to $35 million a year. That's $170,000 for each timber job each year." Not exactly an economic win.
Audubon Alaska's senior scientist, John Schoen, reminds us that we need to "figure out how to do a better job of managing all the values the Tongass has to offer. This is a world-class ecosystem. Its resources deserve world-class efforts to sustain them." The NRDC argues that clearcutting is anything but sustainable, calling it "an ecological trauma that has no precedent in nature except for a major volcanic eruption." Clearcutting, they note, can destroy plant and animal wildlife by eliminating habitats, eroding soil and wiping out buffer zones which reduce the severity of flooding. The truth is, national forests are supposed to provide for multiple uses, from recreation to industry, and it is often difficult to effectively prioritize them. However, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into before we act. As Greenpeace's Larry Edwards noted, the best way to avoid risk "is for the Forest Service to do its environmental impact statements up front and properly in the first place."
Diffusion of responsibility
U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in May 2009 that he would personally review all timber sales in roadless areas of national forests in the next year. On February 10, 2011, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled its proposed Forest Planning Rule which would provide the overall framework for individual forests and grasslands to use in developing, amending and revising land management plans. These rules, mandated by the 1976 National Forest Management Act, are supposed to instruct forest managers as to which areas of the Tongass should be protected and which should be logged. However, this approach is very risky, with the most economically viable logging projects being pursued where there is tremendous risk to wildlife and the environment. Moreover, according to a recent editorial in the NY Times, individual forest managers have too much discretion. These forest managers are easily influenced by timber companies and local politicians whose main interests are to increase the timber harvest. At the same time, additional lawsuits regarding certain individual timber sales remain pending, and the government continues to manipulate the data regarding logging's cost and impact on the environment. We need stronger rules, more oversight and greater clarity. In the current political climate, it is hard to tell who has the forest's best interests at heart.
After nearly ten years of debate over the Tongass National Forest, it seems we have finally reached a stand down with Judge Sedwick's decision. But we have to wonder — what makes this time different? What prevents the decision from being reversed again? What can we do to make sure that the ruling sticks and that it is carried out effectively? As Dr. Seuss' Lorax said, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." I care a whole awful lot. Do you?