Indefinitely Wild

How Protecting the Tongass Helps Alaska’s Economy

Despite GOP rhetoric, selling America’s largest rainforest to China was actually bad business

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Last week, the Biden administration rolled back the previous administration’s 11th-hour plan to strip protections from 9.6 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. The new approach is an effort to ensure the forest will remain preserved for the foreseeable future and invests $25 million in the local economy to offset the loss of logging revenue.

Listen to the rhetoric of Republican politicians in the state, and you might think the plan represents a death knell to southeast Alaska’s economy. “It will cost jobs, diminish income, keep energy prices high, and cripple the ability of the communities in the region to develop a sustainable, year-round economy,” reads a statement from Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“Let me be clear: $25 million doesn’t even come close to covering the economic damage that this administration’s policies will inflict on southeast Alaska,” says Senator Dan Sullivan in a press release. “Alaskans have the right to make a living, support our families, and connect our communities and have a much greater interest in seeing the Tongass healthy and sustainably managed than outside extreme environmental groups pulling the strings in the Biden administration.”

But logging the Tongass never made financial sense to the local, state, or national economy to begin with. It came at a massive cost to American taxpayers, was vastly unpopular, would have destroyed much larger, more profitable industries in the state, and would hurt our country’s ability to slow the effects of climate change.

Logging activity directly threatens the industries that actually drive southeast Alaska’s economy: seafood and tourism.

At 16.7 million acres, the Tongass is America’s largest national forest. The forested portion—those 9.6 million acres the GOP wanted to log—also represents the largest rainforest in our country, one that absorbs eight percent of our annual carbon emissions. It’s also an area of extraordinary biodiversity, containing more plant life per square mile than any other place on this continent, and serving as home to the densest populations of brown bears and bald eagles in North America. It’s a target for logging because it contains vast tracts of virgin, old growth trees that can reach 200 feet tall, and which are up to 800 years old. 

While that lumber is incredibly valuable, its remote location makes it extremely hard to access. And because a decades-old Forest Service policy dictates that logging operations on its lands must be profitable, the cost of accessing the Tongass’ lumber is paid for not by logging companies, but by taxpayers. Existing logging operations in the forest have cost taxpayers $44 million a year since 1980. By that policy, every new mile of logging road cut into the Tongass as part of the Trump administration’s plan to open it up, may have cost taxpayers somewhere around $500,000 per-mile. 

Over 90 percent of lumber logged in the Tongass is shipped to China, where the cheap cost created by American taxpayer subsidization is used to fuel that country’s booming construction industry, and to build furniture and other goods that are then exported to American consumers. 

Even as Alaskan lumber helps Chinese businesses boom, communities in southeast Alaska don’t see the same return. Logging provides less than one percent of the region’s jobs, employing 372 people in 2019 and adding $22 million annually to the local economy. And logging activity directly threatens the industries that actually drive southeast Alaska’s economy: seafood and tourism. 

Erosion and runoff created by logging can flow into the streams and rivers that spawn salmon, smothering their eggs. Salmon fishing in the Tongass contributes $238 million annually to southeast Alaska’s economy, and provides 3,743 jobs in the region. Tourists who come to see the Tongass’ abundant wildlife and unspoiled natural places support 8,394 jobs and add $271 million in economic activity. 

“1,000 year-old trees take 1,000-years to grow,” Andrew Thoms, Executive Director of the Sitka Conservation Society, told the Juneau Empire. “If you log them all in 60 years, you run out.”

Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation owned by Indigenous shareholders, is transitioning out of old growth logging this year. To replace that income, the company is converting the 300,000 acres of forest it owns in the Tongass to carbon sequestration. In the first five years, the program has generated $100 million in profits; 2020 was the most profitable year ever. 

“We need healthy rivers and forests, abundant fish and wildlife, beautiful scenery, and management that recognizes the cultural values of the forest, not more costly and damaging clear-cut logging of old-growth forest,” said Austin Williams, the Alaska director of policy and programs for Trout Unlimited, in an emailed statement. 

In 2001, the Clinton administration acted to protect the Tongass with The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which prohibited new road building in sensitive areas, effectively limiting logging there to already existing levels. The policy announced last October by the Trump administration stripped Roadless protections from the Tongass. The Biden administration’s new policy reinstates the rule’s protections, and announces an effort to make those protections permanent. It’s also providing a one-time $25 million investment in local communities, effectively offsetting any economic activity that may have been provided by expanded logging this year, while actually saving taxpayers money in subsidies that would have had to pay for new road construction.

The debate of Tongass logging represents a microcosm of the one around extraction industries, climate change, and jobs taking place at the national level right now.

Going back to Senators Murkowski and Sullivan: Why are they supporting an industry that generates less than 1 percent of southeast Alaska’s jobs and economic activity and not the region’s primary employers and revenue generators? The Western Values Project, a conservation advocacy organization, reports that there are longstanding financial ties between companies seeking to log the Tongass and republican officials in Alaska. Kirk Dahlstrom, the CEO of Viking Lumber donated to the campaigns of both senators, and the lawyer who represented his bid to log old growth lumber in the Tongass, Richard Goeken, served as principal deputy general counsel to the United States Department of Agriculture under Trump.

While Alaska’s senators worked with Dahlstrom and Goeken to author an exemption to the roadless rule, southeast Alaska’s Indigenous community was shut out of the process. “Sovereign Tribal governments were disrespectfully brushed aside,” Joel Jackson, a local community leader, told the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. 

The debate of Tongass logging represents a microcosm of the one around extraction industries, climate change, and jobs taking place at the national level right now. Even as the Biden administration is demonstrating that it can effectively create good paying jobs in economic sectors working to address climate change, Republican politicians continue to promote corporate welfare for industries like oil, gas, and logging, whose activities are inherently harmful to the environment. Wrapping it all up in disinformation doesn’t make the fact that Republicans are working to damage the economy as much as the environment any less true in southeast Alaska than it does anywhere else in the country. 

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