The Future of the Tongass Lies in Restoring its Past

Written by Dan Cannon

October 27, 2020

SEACC is celebrating our 50th anniversary alongside that of one of our country’s most important environmental laws: The National Environmental Policy Act. While we look forward forward to the next 50 years of maintaining conserving the Tongass, we reflect on how NEPA helped us stand tall for the forest by making our voices heard.

Looking Back

Since day one, SEACC has used the National Environmental Policy Act — the law of the land since 1970 —, to ensure that Alaskans use their voice on proposed development projects that could negatively impact the Tongass National Forest. The right to publicly comment on such federal projects is not enshrined in law in the anywhere else; NEPA is the sole law that guarantees that right. From pointless, exorbitant roads to nowhere, and mines that poison the water, to massive old-growth clearcuts that destroy critical wildlife and fish habitat, SEACC has utilized NEPA as a tool to raise the voices of Southeast Alaskans and ensure they reach the halls of power of D.C.

For over 50 years, SEACC supporters of all walks of life — hunters, fishermen, subsistence users and Indigenous peoples — have participated in hundreds of NEPA processes, allowing us to keep numerous special places in the Tongass intact.

This summer SEACC, our partners, and the public raised hell when President Trump proposed weakening NEPA to allow development projects to be fast-tracked, but ultimately the Trump administration succeeded. The new NEPA will erode public participation in decision-making by not requiring public hearings or meetings, shortening the comment period and limiting topics of comment. Those and other restrictions will limit the public’s meaningful input on issues close to Alaskans’ hearts and homes. The timing couldn’t be worse, as our region and state begins to feel worsening impacts of the climate crisis, and the updated law rule no longer requires cumulative climate change impacts to be assessed.

Some of our partners have filed lawsuits to fight these changes, and, thankfully, presidential administrations do end. We cannot dwell on disappointment. When participating in democracy, it is important to take an occasional break from saying “no” and instead set an agenda what will shape our future, instead.

Looking Ahead

Anticipating the next 50 years for the Tongass is simple: we envision restoring watershed and logged areas damaged by years of ecological destruction and accelerating climate change, and doing everything in our power to promote and expand Southeast’s outdoor recreation economy.

According to a 2011 USDA study, over $100 million is needed to address the remaining watershed restoration work on the Tongass — including removing or remediating fish barriers at road-stream crossings, and improving floodplain and stream function to provide salmon with healthy spawning and rearing habitat.

Restoration of logged areas is a notable sector for local workforce development and climate change mitigation. Projects such as Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s Hoonah Native Partnership and TRAYLS Program in Sitka, Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership and Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition’s (SAWC) Pat Creek Watershed Restoration are already setting the tone for hiring locals to restore the Tongass. Specifically in the summer of 2019 the Hoonah Native Partnership worked to successfully restore 300 meters of Spasski creek, and SAWC received support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to contract BW Enterprises from Wrangell to help with restoration efforts.

Fish passage should be the top priority when restoring the forest. The 2016-2017 Tongass National Forest Monitoring and Evaluation Report evaluated 3,687 fish stream road crossings along approximately 5,000 miles of forest roads, and problematically 33% of the crossings failed to meet state fish passage standards. Prioritizing fish passage will help the Tongass ecologically, ensure nourishment for our communities, and continue our thriving commercial and growing sport fishing economies.

Lost Cove off Lisianski Strait in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Michele Cornelius.

SEACC will advocate in the years to come for sustainable development of recreation within the Tongass. Recreation efforts need to be comprehensive in considering a variety of natural and cultural values of an area and build meaningful engagement with local communities. SEACC believes that continued intentional recreation efforts will only improve the Tongass’s already world-class hiking, hunting, camping, canoeing, fishing and kayaking. SEACC envisions a future where the U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Congressional Delegation, and state officials truly embrace a vibrant outdoor recreation economy, and invest in helping it grow.

Some of this work has already begun. Groups like the Alaska Trail Association, Juneau-based recreation and trail maintenance group Trail Mix Inc., and Alaska Outdoor Alliance are making significant progress in developing and promoting recreation resources.

On the policy side, all three members of Alaska’s Congressional Delegation recently supported the Great American Outdoor Act, the bill that established the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration fund. Up to $1.9 billion a year will be set aside to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands. The GAOA allows up to 15% of those funds to be used on National Forest system lands such as the Tongass National Forest. Ask any Southeast Alaskan: they know a Forest Service cabin that needs improvements, a trail that needs a new bridge, or a culvert that needs to be repaired to ensure protection of critical coho rearing ponds.

If we commit to restoring the Tongass, one day it will be as healthy and whole as it was in the past.

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