Preserving the Tongass

With both the environmental and economic tides turning against clear-cutting in the Tongass National Forest, two members of Congress have nonetheless written legislation to give up to 85,000 acres of prime forest land to an Alaska corporation, all but about 20,000 acres of it for clear-cutting.

Tongass: An April 14 editorial said that a federal agreement with Alaska Natives had been put on hold over environmental concerns. It also implied that all of the lumbering land in the deal would be used for clear-cutting. In fact, the agreement was delayed for other reasons, and some of the land would be used for other kinds of lumbering activities. —

The bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans from Alaska, is as cynical as it is ill-timed. The company that would receive the land, Sealaska Corp., is owned by Alaska Natives; the giveaway would be part of a long-standing settlement that was never finalized because of environmental concerns. That makes it harder for Congress to say no; Native groups, which lost independence and valuable land after white settlers arrived, command sympathy among both conservatives and liberals. There’s also precedent for easing environmental rules for the indigenous people of Alaska, who already are permitted to continue their tradition of whale hunting for sustenance.

Even so, Congress should reject this latest attempt to open the Tongass to large-scale logging. Native tribes aren’t bound by federal environmental regulations governing the lumber industry, and the land involved is particularly sensitive habitat for deer and other wildlife. The last part of the agreement was put on hold during the 1990s after the rapid, wide-scale destruction of areas of the forest by tribal corporations.

A lot has changed since the agreement was first forged with Alaska Natives nearly 40 years ago. Global warming has forced us to confront the damage caused by deforestation. It makes little sense for the U.S. government to pressure Brazil to preserve the Amazon rain forest while allowing logging on tens of thousands of acres of prime habitat in the Tongass, the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest.

The economy of southeast Alaska has changed as well. The timber industry is shrinking because of global competition; tourism is the new jobs generator. That’s something that Pacific Log & Lumber, one of the biggest logging companies left in the region, discovered in recent years. The company’s owner is smartly retooling to build tourism projects in the Tongass, contract with the government for habitat restoration and do limited second-growth logging.

Allowing the clear-cutting of an estimated 65,000 acres or more in the Tongass would perpetuate years of failed land management in which the government has subsidized the destruction of forests. It also would set a dangerous precedent for privatizing a national forest and allowing yet more drastic cutting. Native tribes might well be owed concessions by the federal government, but not at the cost of a treasured public resource.