STAR LAKE — The U.S. National Park Service protects some of our most beautiful, pristine places as a resource for all of its citizens.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service under the Department of the Interior, which was tasked with maintaining the parks “by such means as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks ... which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
National parks have existed all of our lives. But most of us have not known about the attempts, some successful, for private interests to remove resources from these lands.
In an attempt to protect and preserve the wilderness, the Road Less Rule was issued by President Bill Clinton in 2001. This rule prohibited building new roads into wilderness where none had previously existed. This new rule protected ancient trees from being clear cut on the nearly 60 million acres of our country’s national forest land. There have been lawsuits and lobbying efforts over the years in an attempt to reverse this rule. So far, supporters and environmentalists have been able to hold the line.
In August, President Donald Trump directed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the Road Less Rule. If Trump is successful, the effect will be devastating. If Alaska is exempted, the Tongass National Forest will be open to the clear cut logging of 9.2 million acres in the 17 million acres that comprise the park.
Why is this important? The Tongass contains nearly one-third of the old growth temperate rainforest remaining in the world. According to information on the website for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, it also contains the largest tracts of old growth forest left in the United States: “Old-growth temperate rainforests hold more biomass (living stuff) per acre than any other type of ecosystem on the planet, including tropical jungles. The Tongass alone holds 8 percent of all carbon stored in U.S. national forests and is recognized as a globally significant carbon storage reserve.” (www.seacc.org/tongass)
If you think this is about jobs for Alaskans, you would be wrong. According to an Aug. 27article in the Washington Post, “Timber provides a small fraction of southeastern Alaska’s jobs — just under 1 percent, according to the regional development organization Southeast Conference.” This council also says that Alaska’s logging industry is subsidized “to the tune of $20 million per year, or about $130,000 per timber job.”
At the same time, fishing and tourism bring in more than $2 billion to Alaska annually. Furthermore, the Forest Service reports that the Tongass produces 25 percent of the West Coast’s commercial salmon catch. This wealth of salmon would be seriously harmed by any clear cut logging around the streams and rivers of the Tongass.
But there is another issue here. Humans have an inborn desire to experience the natural world. There is something that draws us to the wild. Surrounded by forest, we are reminded of the very essence of who we are. There is a primal connectedness to everything that can be felt as we walk or sit among the mature old trees, the young saplings, and the fallen elders covered with moss. In preserving these areas, people like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson knew that it was an important resource, not for commerce, but for the people of this country. If you travel to Yellowstone, you will enter the park through the Roosevelt Arch and pass under the words “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
I may not own oceanfront property, but together I and every other citizen own thousands of acres of unspoiled wilderness, including places like Point Reyes National Seashore in California. These places have been set aside for us. Because of their existence we can go to Alaska to see the last great wilderness. We can go to Acadia National Park in Maine and experience it for ourselves. We can travel to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. We can hike and camp in The Shenandoah National Forest. We can know how it feels to be there.
It is time to fight against the notion that the only value something or some place has is financial. In the words of John Muir, “There is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.”
In this modern age I say we need this more than ever. In the past, as more and more of this country was developed, there were far sighted men and women who advocated for preservation. Those individuals took steps to make sure that rich and poor alike could share in this country’s most beautiful places.
The National parks belong to the people.
Skye Opel, formerly of Rochester, is retired and lives in Star Lake. She has worked as a blues singer, organic gardener, prep cook at a French restaurant, housecleaner, a very bad waitress, paralegal, registered nurse and an herbalist.