More must be done to protect Alaska

A view of the Tongass National Forest from a tour boat along the Inside Passage south of Juneau, Alas. William Lee Bowman/Dreamstime/Tribune News Service

This editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Aug. 1:

PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — The blight of industrial-scale old-growth logging in Alaska is about to end. And it couldn’t have happened soon enough. And, in fact, it didn’t happen soon enough.

The Biden administration recently announced sweeping protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest that include the cessation of large-scale old-growth logging. Also, road development will be barred in 9 million acres of the 16.7 million-acre forest.

The protections for this forestland signals a shift for a region that has been felling massive trees for decades. The new rules constitute a reversal of one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest public land decisions.

The changes will halt a big source of future carbon emissions and will protect one of the world’s last fairly intact temperate rainforests. In fact, the Tongass is the only national forest where old-growth logging has been undertaken on an industrial scale.

The wood culled from this ancient forest has been used for everything from musical instruments to elegant shingles. The current scale-back of logging goes further than any previous president’s efforts.

It is a right move, and one that has been crafted with protections for Native Alaskans who operate on a small scale. They will be allowed to continue to harvest some old-growth trees. Also, the federal government will allocate $25 million to Alaska for community development, offsetting some of the financial benefit of the industrial logging.

Timber operations felled large swaths of the forest’s largest trees between the 1960s and the 1980s. But, about 5 million acres of prime old-growth habitat remain, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It deserves protection.

Scientists have identified logging in Tongass as a future driver of planetary warming because its ancient trees — many of which are at least 3 centuries old — absorb at least 8% of the carbon stored in the entire lower 48 states’ forests combined. Carbon stored in old-growth trees can stay out of the atmosphere for about 1,000 years if they remain uncut, while research has found about 65% of the carbon held by trees that are felled is released in the ensuing decades.

Many of Alaska’s state and local leaders have opposed logging restrictions for economic reasons. They’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

Alaska Native leaders, environmentalists, commercial fishing operators, anglers and tourism companies see that protecting Alaska’s southeastern terrain is the smart way forward. The Alaskan wilderness is a resource that, once spent, will not be replaced — not in our lifetimes, not in a half-dozen lifetimes. The long view is the right view.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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