President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this month to repeal the Trump administration’s opening of the Tongass National Forest to logging comes as welcome news here in Lingít Aaní, the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit, in Southeast Alaska. As Earth’s largest intact temperate rainforest, this lush land — home to brown bears, eagles and cedar trees that began life well before Christopher Columbus ever considered his voyage across the ocean — deserves protection.
According to the Forest Service, 96% of the 1.6 million letters and comments submitted during the 600 public sessions — including hundreds from our neighbors in the Pacific Northwest — favored keeping the Tongass intact. Members of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes joined with conservationists and guides, ATVers, hunters and fishermen to speak out against the previous administration’s repeal of the Clinton-era 2001 Roadless Rule.
As the comments observed, ending industrial clear-cutting in the Tongass benefits all of us. Alaska’s panhandle requires a healthy Tongass to maintain its fishing and tourism industries, which together create more than 11,000 jobs, contributing $480 million annually to the economy.
The question now becomes: Where do we go from here?
Biden’s team might just have an answer: a strategic Forest Carbon Reserve.
Designating the Tongass a Forest Carbon Reserve would be a significant step toward ensuring protecting one of the Northern Hemisphere’s largest carbon sinks. As our Earth warms, forests constitute our first defense, storing more carbon per acre than any terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. The Tongass functions as a giant sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide. In fact, the rainforest stores 44% of all the carbon dioxide in our national forests across the country, earning it the sobriquet “Fort Knox of carbon.”
The Tongass designation would be in keeping with Biden’s long-standing interest in climate change. As a Delaware senator, he introduced his Global Climate Protection Act in 1987, speaking in prescient language of a warming planet and questioning what rising sea levels might mean for humans.
He now has the chance to make good on those words.
The idea of a Forest Carbon Reserve has long been discussed by biologists and the Sierra Club. By safeguarding the Tongass’ 17 million acres, Biden would shield a forest Dominick DellaSala, the chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, has called the “lungs of North America.” The move would also demonstrate to the world that the United States is serious about mitigating climate change — just in time to create some good faith at the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow this November.
As the idea of a Forest Carbon Reserve gathers momentum here in Alaska, among fishermen on the docks, lodge operators and wilderness guides, the remnants of Big Timber — Alcan Forest Products, Viking Lumber Company — have started to fret that the Tongass might become a lockbox, or a museum piece.
Let’s be honest; as the rest of the Lower 48 realize, the real museum piece is Big Timber itself and its practice of industrial clear cutting. Alaska’s pioneer past, which my family was a part of in 1898, constitutes a flawed but important chapter in our country’s history. It certainly should not be used as any guide for 21st century forest management.
“Once the [timber] industry is gone, hopefully, for Southeast Alaska’s sake there is something left around here to support the businesses that rely on the timber companies,” wrote Brian Brown, a director of Alcan, in 2016. A year previous, Brown testified to Congress, warning that if timber didn’t return to Southeast Alaska, the region would “become another Appalachia, doomed to endless poverty and families dependent upon government jobs or welfare.”
I hope Brown has learned that businesses in Southeast Alaska, including my family’s, don’t rely on clear cutting. We rely on the Tongass itself — upright and intact. Not only for our livelihood, but for the clean air we breathe, and the crystal-clear water we give to our three daughters. As my 6-year-old never tires of explaining to me, trees in the forest “do better standing up.”
When President Bill Clinton signed the Roadless rule into law, he said, “If there is one thing that should always unite us as a community, across the generations, across parties, across time, it is love for the land.” He’s right, of course. But it’s more than that. We love this land because we need it to support our communities in the woods and to stay alive.
By designating the Tongass a Forest Carbon Reserve system, Biden would be following through on his commitment to be a climate-change pioneer, safeguarding our economy and protecting our lifestyle in Southeast Alaska. He would honor Lingít Aaní, creating a legacy of jobs and clean air for years to come.