Healing Nature’s Wounds: Tongass Edition
The largest of Earth’s temperate rainforests, the Tongass National Forest, of SE Alaska, has again been spared the chainsaw and road builders recently by the Biden Administration. In a not-unexpected executive decision, the president banned all road building and logging in a 9.3-million-acre portion of the Tongass. This action was a reversal of a decision the former president made opening up the Tongass to road building and logging. Regarding the Tongass, President Trump reversed an executive decision by President Obama which reversed a decision by former President Bush which reversed a decision by President Clinton. Are you still with me? This two-decade-long back-and-forth battle to alternately protect and exploit this 16.7-million-acre woodland paradise is due to the nature of Presidential proclamations. These proclamations remain law as long as any sitting president allows them to be. They are protected not by law, but by decree.
These island forests are largely undisturbed and home to a wide range of flora and fauna with rivers and forests that are home to the largest population of black bears in the nation. Its forests are home to brown and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, eagles, and ravens. Its rivers spawn an important salmon run that is famous for the wealth of sea life they draw to the rivers and waters off the island. These include otters, seals, sea lions, orcas, and humpback whales. The Tongass’s importance to the region’s wildlife abundance and sustainable fishing by indigenous peoples could not be overstated. So, yes, it is indeed good news that the president and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack reversed the former administration’s decision to exploit the Tongass for short-term economic gain.
Yet, threats to the Tongass National Forest persist. In a report by Grist, EarthRise Media, and CoastAlaska the threats to the Tongass continue, despite which party occupies the Oval Office. Congress, it seems, has the right to engage in land swaps with private industry. Federally protected land can and is being traded for logged, exploited land outside of the national forest’s borders. In fact, 88,000 acres have already been swapped, legally by acts of Congress–often at the behest of Alaska’s federal and state representatives. In short, the Alaskan & Federal agencies are trading high-value (economically & biologically) forest land for much less valued and exploited land outside of the Tongass National Forest, leading to more fragmentation.
This back-and-forth battle between preservationists and working forest wonks is relatively new. Only in the last two decades has a presidential proclamation been overturned by incoming administrations. Grand Staircase Escalante, Bear’s Ears, and the Tongass are the only presidential-protected lands to be ping-ponged by subsequent administrations. Of the hundreds of such preservation proclamations, often under historic/cultural preservation language, the Clinton and Obama Administrations are the only ones to be overturned. Why this isolated window of “undoing” is enacted on recently protected lands is that the longer a piece of land is protected the more support it gains in the local communities and their economies. The coincidence of the uptick in vitriol between our political parties has put wilderness and its preservation in the crosshairs of ideological warfare.
The only permanent solution to this situation is the organic, AKA “legal” protection afforded by an act of Congress. Where bills are written and voted on and signed into law by responsible adults who act in the best interests of their constituents, wild and civilized. Too often the word utility is used to explain human actions and behavior. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of Utilitarian thought explained utility in Principles of Morals and Legislation as the best use of a resource that best serves the greatest good to the greatest number. Bentham’s prescient explanation of utility never once mentions humans, just the greatest number. The grass, forest, insects, vertebrates, and microbes of the Tongass surely outnumber the few humans who would cut and burn this paradise to the ground.
Jason Kahn recently joined The Rewilding Institute board of directors after retiring from serving as a bike mechanic after retiring from serving as an Earth Sciences teacher. Jason continues to cycle regularly and is plotting a bicycle-supported wildways trek next year with his rewilding friends.