A condensed version of this story appears in Atmos Volume 04: Cascade. Click here to order your copy.
In 2019, the Trump administration moved to gut age-old protections for Alaska’s largest temperate rainforest and to open it up for logging. Now, according to a 62-page notice posted Wednesday, it will be legal for logging companies to build roads and remove timber across more than 9.3 million acres of forest—reversing previous protections and opening the forest to excavation of an additional 188,000 forested acres.
But the fate of the Tongass has long been held in limbo between presidential administrations—a timeline with such highs and lows that plans for the forest have been debated almost monthly, every single year, since 1998. In 2001, for example, then-President Bill Clinton established the Roadless Rule, which prohibited more than 50 million acres from road construction (and reconstruction) and timber harvesting. Then, George Bush sought to overturn the rule until, in 2006, federal district court judge Elizabeth Laporte (San Francisco) ordered the reinstatement of the Clinton-era rule, which extended to more than half of the forest.
Late last year, after more than 400,000 comments were sent to the US Forest Service in defense of the cherished lands and nearly 200 people (including local tribal leaders, environmental activists, and fishermen) testified against the proposal, a federal judge ruled against the plan to destroy 1.8 million acres of forest that dozens of ecosystems call home. But now, Trump is making good on his word to decimate the forest in his most sweeping public land rollback ever.
What else is at stake besides an ecological oasis that’s home to a myriad of species, including old-growth stands of red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Western hemlock? Clean water: The Tongass holds over 900 watersheds and provides clean water for drinking and hydropower to a dozen Southeast Alaska communities and fish hatcheries. The health and safety of Indigenous communities: The Tongass is home to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. In response to Trump’s proposal, WECAN International said the federal government’s plans would “actively contribute to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous Peoples whose identities, cultures, and livelihoods are integral to the forest.” And more broadly, America’s contribution to the world’s carbon sink: It’s estimated that the Tongass captures 8% of all of the carbon stored in US forests.
Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Geos Institute, has called the Tongass the state’s “best and final shot at preparing for climate change.” Experts refer to it as a “bulwark” against the climate crisis. And, perhaps in reference to the crown of a tree, the US Forest Service calls the Tongass the country’s crown jewel.
To save America’s national treasures, we are in need of a climate change pioneer—perhaps someone who would vow to permanently protect places like the Tongass and other areas impacted by the Trump administration’s attacks on the environment (or climate change itself), someone who would establish national parks and monuments as symbols of an America that prioritizes the protection of its natural resources, someone who would ban new oil and gas permits on public land and waters, and someone who would let Frontline communities have not just a seat at the table, but a voice in the room and a gavel of which to strike into law the reversal of decades of silent harm.
So, if it is indeed the case that the Tongass National Forest is one of our last hopes, what would it take for us to treat it as such—especially if we’re optimistic that petitions and signatures can turn enough awareness into enough votes for the planet and save one of the few last places in the world that are truly wild? In our latest issue, photographer Daniel Shea ventured into the forest to capture the Tongass for those who can’t see it up close: in its apolitical form, untouched by mankind, exempt from opinion and economic value—a true American symbol of something completely and utterly irreplaceable.