The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, known as the “crown jewel” of the National Forest System, is America’s largest and wildest national forest. Nearly 17 million acres in size, the Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest on Earth. The old-growth forests throughout the Tongass are critical sanctuaries for thousands of native and endemic fish and wildlife species and serve as a globally significant carbon sink. For over a decade, Crag has worked with a coalition of local and regional conservation groups to defend and conserve the Tongass.
Despite the Tongass’ national and international importance, the U.S. Forest Service continues to authorize thousands of acres of old-growth clearcuts every year. The Tongass is the only area of the National Forest System still implementing a logging program focused on clearcutting old growth. To combat the devastating impacts of clear-cut logging, we focus on the last line of defense: challenging the most destructive old-growth timber sales to defend this globally important resource and uphold our nation’s environmental laws. We focus on the most critical logging projects to leverage high-impact, on-the-ground results.
Over the years, we have represented a coalition of local and national environmental organizations in litigation against proposed old-growth timber sales. Since 2009 we have been involved in five different cases challenging old-growth timber sales across the Tongass. As 96% of old growth forest from California to Alaska has already been cut down, we are doing everything we can to preserve “the last frontier.”
What's at Stake
The old-growth forests of the Tongass provide habitat for countless species including the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare and endemic subspecies of grey wolf, as well as the Sitka Black-tailed deer. Eagles, bears, moose and mountain goats salmon can be found across the Tongass. With its dramatic scenery and robust wildlife populations, this national forest supports a burgeoning tourism industry. Witnessing a thousand year old Sitka Spruce tree, hearing a howling wolf in the wild, photographing an elusive Queen Charlotte goshawk–the Tongass provides unparalled opportunities for life changing experiences. Commercial fishing is also a staple of the local economy, as the nearshore and freshwater habitat of the Tongass supports all five species of Pacific salmon. The Tongass also provides immeasurable ecosystem services, as the forests of the Tongass act as a globally important carbon sink, storing an estimated 8% of the forest carbon of the United States.
Despite the Tongass’s importance, for the past 60 years, forest management on the Tongass has focused on maximizing logging at the expense of all other resources. More than three quarters of a million acres of high-value forestland has been logged. When faced with the choice of protecting remaining habitat, promoting recreation and tourism, and preserving healthy salmon streams–versus authorizing clearcut logging of coastal forests–the Forest Service chose the latter. The agency’s mission is “Caring for the Land and Serving the People.” Just the opposite is happening on the Tongass.
The timber industry, bought-and-paid for legislators, and Forest Service bureaucrats should not be making decisions to undermine our public lands. Rather, it is everyday people who care deeply about the Tongass—including scenic flight pilots, commercial fishermen, local sawmill operators, and the people living in the lower 48 who take solace in the fact that a true wilderness remains—whose voices must be heard. The fight to protect Tongass National Forest is about ensuring our public lands serve the people and wildlife of today and future generations.
In 2011, we won a key victory in the fight to preserve old-growth forest and wildlife habitat in the Tongass National Forest. In the case – Greenpeace v. Cole – the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected four old-growth timber sales that would have logged over 1,700 acres of important habitat for the Stika black-tailed deer and Alexander Archipelago wolf. The court recognized that the Forest Service was ignoring the best available science on how old-growth logging affects wolves and deer, instead relying on inaccurate and outdated data.
The Forest Service then attempted to bypass the mandatory public engagement and merely incorporate the new wildlife analysis into an outdated forest plan. In 2014, the U.S. District Court in Anchorage rejected this deeply flawed proposal, stopping the four Tongass logging projects for a second time.
Once again, the Forest Service re-authorized the 4 old-growth timber sales using faulty analysis and an outdated model. We are returning to the courtroom on behalf of our clients–Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands–to protect the Tongass. In August 2018, we will be arguing before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Anchorage, challenging the arbitrary and unfounded decision to permit such logging.
In May of 2015, we filed a lawsuit that challenged a plan to log the old-growth forests of Mitkof Island, near the Southeast Alaska community of Petersburg. We represented Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands and Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
The groups argued the agency violated federal environmental laws by concluding that logging 4,117 acres of important old-growth deer, wolf and goshawk habitat would not have a “significant” impact, without first completing the standard environmental impact statement. Instead the Forest Service broke with past practices by requiring only an environmental assessment — an abbreviated review typically used on far less significant projects. Contrary to the claim that the logging and associated road construction would have insignificant impacts on the 134,000-acre island, the environmental groups catalogued a number of significant impacts. These include loss of winter habitat for deer, further stressing the local population; harm to subsistence hunters, particularly low-income residents who cannot afford to travel to distant islands for deer; threats to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, which is currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, from loss of deer habitat and the likelihood of increased trapping; and damage to the Queen Charlotte goshawk, a raptor that relies on old-growth forest.
In response to our lawsuit, in November of 2015, the U.S. Forest Service formally withdrew its authorization of the Mitkof Island Project — a large, 35-million-board-foot timber sale.
Saddle Lakes – In March of 2016, the Alaska Regional Forester put a timber sale on hold which called for about 50 million board feet of old-growth trees to be logged from about 2,500 acres of coastal rainforest near Ketchikan on Revillagigedo Island.
Big Thorne – In April of 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Beistline granted a temporary injunction of a timber sale which involves the proposed logging of more than 6,000 acres of old-growth coastal rainforest.
We are proudly representing Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands, along with Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, The Boat Company, and Sitka Conservation Society in defending the Tongass. Greenpeace is a global, independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future. Cascadia Wildlands is a grassroots conservation organization that defends and restores Cascadia’s wild ecosystems in the forests, in the courts, and in the streets. We are all committed to old-growth forest preservation.
Oliver Stiefel, one of our staff attorneys who is leading our Tongass work, traveled to the Tongass to experience the natural beauty and logging impacts firsthand. In his Letter from the Tongass, he discussed the Tongass’ future.
“The next several years will be critical to the future of the Tongass; the forest and the diverse ecosystem it supports have reached a tipping point. We have the opportunity to protect a critical mass of what’s left before it’s too late to reverse the trend. We must demand a better future for our forests, wildlife, and people. The Tongass is worth fighting for.”