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Why Tongass National Forest is important? How Trump's move to lift protections impacts US' last climate sanctuary

Referred to by experts as the 'lungs of North America', it is the largest national forest of the US and the world's largest intact temperate rainforest
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For nearly two decades, much of Alaska's Tongass National Forest — the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest — was protected from logging and road construction by the 2001 Roadless Rule. Referred to by experts as the "lungs of North America", safeguards were put in place by former President Bill Clinton. Now, the Trump administration has announced that Tongass will be exempt from this rule and will lift protections.

This implies that logging companies can legally build roads and cut timber throughout the over 9.3 million acres of forest. "The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is adopting a final rule to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (2001 Roadless Rule), which prohibits timber harvest and road construction/reconstruction with limited exceptions within designated inventoried roadless areas," says the notice issued by the USDA.

"While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America. It’s America's last climate sanctuary," Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, told The Washington Post.

When was Tongass created?

it was established in 1907 by an executive order issued by President Theodore Roosevelt. A formal legislation declaring it a national forest was signed into law in 1909. The forest was named for a Tlingit Indian group, according to Britannica. 

What is its significance?

At approximately 17 million acres, Tongass is America's largest national forest and covers most of Southeast Alaska, surrounding the famous "Inside Passage" and offers unique chances to view eagles, bears, spawning salmon and the breathtaking vistas of "wild" Alaska. 

"It's ironic that this administration is trying to tout this president's environmental record when (Donald Trump is) unwinding environmental safeguards all over the place. And lifting protections on the Tongass, the nation's flagship forest, is about the most egregious of all of them," Ken Rait, project director of the Pew Charitable Trust, who two decades ago helped win the protections that are being undone now, told The Guardian.

Much of the Tongass was protected from logging and road construction by the 2001 Roadless Rule. However, Tongass will now be exempt from this rule (Getty Images)

The Tongass National Forest consists of rain forests, glaciers and icefields, spectacular scenery, mountains, waterways and thousands of islands separated by straits and channels. It is teeming with life: over 400 species of terrestrial and marine wildlife, fish and shellfish abound. The Tongass also has many special places, from bear viewing areas to migratory bird stopover sites, glaciers and misty fjords to limestone caves and karsts, and millions of acres of wilderness. 

"Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Coast Mountains and Canadian border on the east, the lush greenery of the Tongass National Forest spans 500 miles of Southeast Alaska. Comprising the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass is a place filled with islands and salmon streams, where towering mountains sweep down into thick old-growth forest and granite cliffs drop into deep fjords," describes USDA.

It further says, "At roughly the size of West Virginia, the Tongass National Forest is also the largest national forest in the US and home to approximately 70,000 people living in 32 communities, including the state capital, Juneau."

At nearly 5,756,000 acres, 19 wilderness areas account for approximately one-third of the forest. According to the Alaska Wilderness League, the Tongass is home to humpback and orca whales, otters, beavers, Alexander Archipelago wolves and some of the largest, densest concentrations of bald eagles found on the planet. It is also home to five species of salmon: king, red, silver, chum and pink.

The forest has the highest density of black bears in the world and one of the highest densities of brown bears. To provide visitors a safe place to view and photograph these iconic creatures in their natural habitats, the Tongass has five designated bear viewing areas: Anan Creek, Dog Salmon Creek, Fish Creek, Margaret Creek and Pack Creek.

These are sites where bears gather naturally when there are fish in the streams, and facilities have been built to make viewing the bears easier and safer, with minimum disturbance to the animals. The viewing areas can also offer the opportunity to see salmon, bald eagles, sea lions and other wildlife.

Continental ice sheets shaped the landscape of Southeastern Alaska over millions of years. "The present-day glaciers are fed from the moisture-laden Japanese current abruptly encountering the Coast Range and delivering high amounts of precipitation to the landscape. These glaciers in turn contribute massive amounts of freshwater to multiple glacial watersheds, which currently contribute approximately 30% of total freshwater discharge from Southeast Alaska. The glaciers we see today are not considered stagnant features. Many are still receding and losing mass balance at varying rates," says the USDA. 

At nearly 5,756,000 acres, 19 wilderness areas account for approximately one-third of the forest
(Getty Images)

According to scientists, some retreating glaciers are exposing new land on an annual basis, providing opportunities for research on plant succession, hydrologic processes, or gaining new recreation opportunities and enhancing wildlife habitat. "Glacier change can also be used as barometers of warming effects and all are vulnerable to accelerated regional and global climate change. Multiple species of plants, birds, and other animals use glacial habitats as home or feeding areas," they add. 

Why is it important for the environment?

Since increasing levels of carbon dioxide are contributing to global climate change, there is growing interest in managing forests to sequester and store carbon. The Tongass National Forest stores more carbon than any other national forest in the US. "The Tongass alone holds 8% of all carbon stored in US national forests and is recognized as a globally significant carbon storage reserve," notes the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. 

A 2019 analysis of roadless area values on the Tongass National Forest had said that the enormous amount of carbon stored in the Tongass old-growth rainforest is key to Alaska’s climate future but at-risk to development by the Trump Administration’s proposed rollback of roadless protections. The research team from Geos Institute reported exceptionally high carbon density for the Tongass rainforest on par with temperate rainforests in Chile and Tasmania, the world’s most carbon-dense terrestrial carbon sinks.

According to the findings, the Tongass is part of a global network of temperate rainforests that make up about 2.5% of the world’s total forest coverage but that store a disproportionate amount of carbon critically important in climate regulation.

The Tongass is one of only four other temperate rainforests worldwide that is still largely intact, which is crucial for hundreds of fish and wildlife species seeking refuge from Alaska’s extreme climate impacts, said authors. They suggested that the Tongass may function as a "climate refuge for species facing more extreme climatic conditions" in the interior of Alaska and coastal rainforests further south if managed to protect old-growth forests and roadless areas.

"Carbon dioxide emissions are insidious and cumulative – we cannot see their immediate effects – but everyone on the planet – especially future generations – will eventually be affected severely by the unprecedented accumulation of fossil fuel emissions globally, deforestation in the tropics, and development of Tongass roadless areas unless we cut all emissions drastically, This is Alaska's best and final shot at preparing for climate change but the Forest Service has completely undervalued the climate importance of Tongass roadless areas and is squandering it away to developers," wrote lead author Dr Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Geos Institute.