An Alert in Alaska

The Tongass is in trouble

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Last month, the Trump administration finalized its plan to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, opening our nation’s largest national forest to logging, mining, road construction and energy development.

The formal lifting of this protection will occur in the next 30 days, and timber sales and road construction could begin by the end of this year.

So why should we care here in Whatcom County? Those of us who live in and around Bellingham are linked to this decision in many ways and we will each be directly affected by this.

A good many of those who live in Bellingham, me included, reside, work and play here in great part because of the magnificent outdoor resources available. Issues such as salmon, orca, forests, air and water quality, recreation and the ability to get lost in the woods mean something in this community.

My eyes continually wander north to British Columbia and Alaska and this community’s role as a gateway to those wild places. Eliminating protections in the Tongass, as well as other recent administrative rollbacks on clean water, endangered species, clean energy, and climate means weaker future protections in Alaska, nationally and here at home.

Twenty years ago, the Roadless Rule was approved to provide protection for 60 million acres of roadless areas in National Forests both in Alaska and nationwide, including nearly two million acres here in Washington state. These include our last remaining old-growth forests and wild places that escaped the unsustainable logging and road building a half century ago. These are places like the Church Mountain Trail, Skyline Divide, and the west slope of the iconic Twin Sisters.

If this current administration is successful in eliminating protections for nine million acres of protected roadless forests in our nation’s largest national forest, you can bet the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie and other forests in Washington state will be next.

In happier times, and hopefully again soon, Bellingham has enjoyed its unique role as a northern gateway with the Alaska Ferry System and as a key border crossing. Sitka and Juneau, Glacier Bay National Park, and a thousand miles of the Inside Passage all lie within the Tongass and will be affected by this ruling.

For those wishing to travel to coastal Alaska, either to fish, hike, climb, sea kayak, photograph wildlife or to simply enjoy a multi-day trip up the Inside Passage, just imagine how these experiences will be affected once logging and other development is given free rein.

This forest and Bellingham are also linked as part of the Cascadia bioregion and the Pacific Temperate Rain Forest ecoregion (coastal forests) that runs from Prince William Sound south through the Queen Charlottes, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and into Northern California. Temperate rain forests are the world’s most effective carbon storage systems.

This area we live in contains more than one-fourth of the world’s coastal temperate rainforest, and the Tongass is the world’s largest. Cutting 165,000 acres of old growth will release as much as 80 percent of the carbon stored there.

Those who live in Whatcom County should be involved in decision-making on federal lands that we all own as United States citizens—especially as those decisions get closer and closer to home and will affect a forest so closely linked to our community.
Residents should thank Senator Maria Cantwell for her leadership in protecting and defending Roadless Areas nationwide and urge Representative Rick Larsen to take a similar lead in the House of Representatives.

Rich Bowers is a resident of Bellingham and enjoys hiking, kayaking and photography in wild places. He has more than 30 years of expertise in protecting land and water resources nationally and locally and has been director and board member for multiple land and water conservation organizations, including American Whitewater and the Whatcom Land Trust.

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