Indigenous Alaskans fight back as U.S. strips protections for Tongass National Forest

Marina Anderson’s ancestors have lived and worked in Alaska’s old-growth forests for more than 10,000 years — and now she’s worried a new Trump administration policy will wreak havoc on the land.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it is stripping protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, allowing for logging and road construction in more than 9.3 million acres of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.

“For me, being in the Tongass is being at home because these are my ancestral lands,” Anderson, the Haida and Tlingit tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

“It’s full of canopies of old-growth forest that have an abundant amount of life within them, plant life, animals, fungus — everything that provides this extremely lush ecosystem that is green year round.”

The Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S., and known to conservationists and scientists as “the lungs of North America.” It’s a site of immense biodiversity and, according to a 2019 scientific analysis by the Oregon-based Geos Institute, a vital source of carbon absorption. 

In this July 31, 2013, file photo, tourists visit the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest near Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska. (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)

The Donald Trump administration says it will exempt the Tongass from what’s known as the “roadless rule” —  protections brought in under former president Bill Clinton in 2001 that ban road construction and timber harvests in one-quarter of all U.S. Forest Service lands.

That rule was created in part to protect the environment, and in part to curb the amount of U.S. tax dollars spent maintaining the roads. 

But the roadless rule has long been controversial in Alaska, and has frequently been at the centre of court battles. 

Alaska’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleav has advocated for his state to be exempted from the rule in order to boost Alaska’s struggling economy. Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation also have pushed for the exemption.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said on social media that a full exemption from the roadless rule is about access “to recreation, renewable energy and more while ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters.”

Anderson says Alaskans rely on the Tongass. (Submitted by Marina Anderson )

Anderson doesn’t buy the economic argument. 

She says the logging industry in Alaska is heavily reliant on fly-in workers who don’t necessarily spend their income locally, and the boom-and-bust nature of the industry does more harm than good.

“If you look at Prince of Wales Island, we have … four villages, Native villages. The rest of the towns on the island are all old logging camps that people have settled in that are now second-class cities that the state of Alaska cannot fund,” she said. 

“They can barely fund keeping the old logging roads that go to these cities maintained, and keeping these cities going.”

What’s more, she said, the modern Alaskan economy is heavily dependent on fishing, and “the salmon rely on the forest.”

The effects of clear-cutting from generations past 

Anderson’s own father was a logger, she said, taking what work was available to him at the time. 

“My father passed away a few years ago, but something I think about a lot is how he told me that he didn’t know what these clear-cuts would do. He didn’t know that these clear-cuts were going to be bringing down landslides, and that these clear-cuts were going to make the habitat for the deer unsuitable and the habitat for humans unsuitable and the habitat for proper regrowth unsuitable,” she said.

“It was a new way of logging at that time. And today I’m seeing, years later, the effects of these clear-cuts.”

In fact, the road she lives on, she says, had four landslides on last Monday alone. 

“One of them stopped right before my house,” she said. 

The Organized Village of Kasaan is one of five Indigenous Alaska tribes that wrote a joint letter to the U.S. secretary of agriculture and chief of the Forest Service, opting out of their  “co-operating agency status,” which had allowed them to participate in the environmental assessment leading up to Wednesday’s announcement.

They say their input was ignored and their opposition was not reflected in the government’s final environmental impact statement. 

Now they are adding their voices to the chorus of conservation groups fighting to protect the land.

Anderson says the best chance they have is voting Trump out of office.

“We’re in a time when our political leaders are being held a little bit more accountable when it comes to social justice, and environmental justice is social justice,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s something that [Democratic candidate] Joe Biden would really be able to turn a blind eye to at this point in time, especially when you’re looking at the lungs of North America.”

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