A Local Perspective on the Return of the Roadless Rule in Southeast Alaska

The Biden Administration reinstated Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass National Forest
tongass national forest
The author walking through the Tongass National Forest. Chris Miller

About a decade ago I was riding in a truck with an out-of-work Tlingit logger along a stretch of Chichagof Island’s hundreds of miles of logging roads. We were both contracted under a grant to help develop a potential bear-viewing area. While we drove, he reminisced about the days of the logging boom. He looked out on the walls of spindly, dead-looking, second-growth forest bordering the road.

“If we’d done it right,” he said, “I’d still be logging.” 

He was referring to the short-term, destructive approach to logging that ruled Southeast Alaska’s timber industry in the 20th century, when it was mostly run by foreign-owned pulp mills that made money clearcutting huge swaths of old-growth forest. At the time, the U.S. Forest Service saw the woods not as an ecosystem to support hunting, fishing, and the traditional way of life, but as a crop to be harvested. Young forest, they claimed, would provide better feed and habitat for game. The effect of clearcut logging on fish, they said, would be minimal. The forest would grow back quickly, they said. Soon, they’d harvest it all over again. 

That all sounded good, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Southeast Alaska’s logging industry became heavily subsidized—in the past 40 years, taxpayers have lost $1.7 billion dollars “selling” Tongass trees. The clear-cut logging practices were devastating for streams and wildlife.  That must have come as a surprise to some of the supporters of the “it’ll grow back in a few years” theory. 

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A clearcut in the Tongass National Forest. Colin Arisman

It gets cold in Alaska and trees grow slowly here. Compounding the problem, once a second-growth forest gets tall enough, the interlocking canopy is all the same height. That uniform canopy locks out light, slowing growth even more, killing the understory, and minimizing ecological and economic value.

That’s why I was very happy, this past Wednesday, to hear the United States Department of Agriculture announce the return of Roadless Rule protections to Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The move “restores longstanding roadless protections to 9.37 million acres of roadless areas that support the ecological, economic and cultural values of Southeastern Alaska.”

The Roadless Rule

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The author and Dan Kirkwood assessing a salmon stream on Admiralty Island Chris Miller

The Trump administration had axed the Roadless Rule on Oct. 28, 2020 as a way to make it easier to clear-cut log much of the remaining old-growth forest in the Tongass. It was a move that did not go over well. During the commenting period, 96 percent of commenters testified the Roadless Rule should be kept in place. All Southeast Alaska Tribes who commented strongly opposed the decision. 

The Tongass encompasses 26,500 square miles of Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, mountains, and glaciers. By 2001, much of the Tongass’ most “valuable” forest—from both an ecological and economic viewpoint—had been logged, and the pulp mills had clear-cut logged themselves out of business. The Roadless Rule was established that year to protect against clear-cut logging and road building in around 9 million acres in the Tongass, including much of the most valuable remaining wild salmon, brown bear, black bear, and deer habitat that’s so important for the outdoorsmen and women who live here. It’s also important to note that about half the Tongass National Forest comprises glaciers, rocks, muskeg, and alpine tundra. About three percent of the Tongass consists of large tree old growth, which means trees with trunks that have a 21-inch diameter or bigger. About half of the Tongass old growth had been cut. 

In a press release on Wednesday, Tlingit leader Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, explained why old growth forest is important.

“We are tied to our lands that our ancestors walked on thousands of years ago.” Jackson said. “We walk these same lands and the land still provides food security—deer, moose, salmon, berries, our medicines. The old-growth timber plays an important part in keeping all these things coming back year after year; it’s our supermarket year around. And it’s a spiritual place where we go to ground ourselves from time to time.”

What’s Next for Southeast Alaska? 

deer hunting tongass national forest
The author with a Sitka blacktail buck. Bjorn Dihle

The Roadless Rule is one of the few measures that has worked in protecting old-growth forest habitat. But it’s just part of the overall picture: right now, hunters, fishermen, and businesses in Southeast are rallying behind the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, announced by the USDA in July 2020. The strategy aims “to support a diverse economy, enhance community resilience, and conserve natural resources in Southeast Alaska. It has four main goals: to end large-scale old-growth timber sales on the Tongass National Forest and focus management resources to support forest restoration, recreation, and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habitat and watershed improvement; to restore 2001 Roadless Rule protections; to engage in meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations; and to identify short- and long-term opportunities for investments that reflect the diverse opportunities and needs in the region.”

As part of the sustainability strategy, the Secretary of Agriculture made an initial commitment of $25 million for sustainable economic development projects proposed by Southeast Alaska Tribes, corporations, communities, businesses and organizations. Some of that money went to the Tlingit village of Angoon’s Native corporation, Kootznoowoo, Inc. to explore the feasibility of establishing a bear-viewing site near the community on Admiralty Island—one of the most bear-rich places in the world. Kootznoowoo hired me to help out with that project.

So last August, between assessing salmon streams for bears, I climbed a couple of mountains to hunt Sitka blacktail deer. On the eve of a massive rainstorm, I shot a young buck on an alpine bench that afforded an impressive view of Southeast Alaska’s splendor. The sun was setting. Despite the six inches of rain predicted in the next few days, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

After those heavy rains, I walked a few more streams remembering that a few years ago, archeologists had found the remains of a fish trap here that was at least 3,000 years old. It was a small reminder that the Tlingit people have been fishing and hunting here since time immemorial—at least 10,000 years. 

The return of the Roadless Rule, and the potential of the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, gives me hope that the story of living off the land in Southeast Alaska will be told for years to come. That’s a victory for residents and visiting outdoorsmen alike.