Ancient giants live in southeastern Alaska. There, in Tongass National Forest, centuries-old trees stretch 100-plus feet high and span an impressive 12 feet wide. Stands of these towering, old growth trees are very rare, making up only three percent of the entire forest—at 17 million acres, the nation’s largest forest and the world’s largest coastal temperate.
They may soon become rarer still: federal legislation under consideration would allow 70,000 acres to be logged and developed. And while a proposed U.S. Forest Service management plan calls for removing old-growth areas from logging, it hasn’t yet been finalized and wouldn’t affect the 70,000-acre tract.
The old growth stands of cedar, hemlock, and spruce are vital to Alaska’s temperate rainforest ecosystem. In winter, the giant trees catch falling snow in their branches so that, far below, Sitka-black-tailed deer can forage on ground would otherwise be buried. They provide important habitat for a vulnerable population of northern goshawks—sleek, ash-colored raptors that hunt in the open understory that large trees create by choking out sunlight smaller plants need to grow. High up in the safety of their branches nest marbled murrelets, one of the few seabirds that travel inland to lay their eggs in trees.
A nesting murrelet. (Photo by NPS)
The stands also contribute to Southeastern Alaska’s $1 billion salmon fishery. By providing streams with woody debris, they’re a key component in the aquatic habitat favored by these fish.
“This is a very rare kind of old growth,” says Beth Peluso, Audubon Alaska’s communications manager. Half of these trees have already been logged, she says. “There’s not any reason to be cutting those trees anymore.”
Sealaska Corporation, a native-owned company with more than 21,000 tribal member shareholders, disagrees. The corporation is seeking to lay claim to 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest for logging. This week the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously approved the provision, introduced by Lisa Murkowski. Next it will move on to the full Senate for a vote, which could take months.
The bill, called the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act—or, S. 340—would finally resolve decades old land claims. Under an agreement struck up in 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the government promised 12 regional corporations owned by Alaska Natives 44 million acres.
Sealaska, which does business in everything from logging to software development, is still entitled to 70,000 acres. The corporation has claimed most of the 375,000 acres it was entitled to, when it selected lands within ANCSA-approved areas in 2008. Now, it’s set its sights on carving the remaining tract out of Tongass old-growth forest.
S. 340 would transfer ownership of the economically valuable old growth forest to Sealaska. While old growth forest is only 3 percent of the Tongass forest, it would make up a whopping 30 percent of Sealaska’s land selection if S. 340 is passed. The bill also places 152,000 acres into conservation areas.
Conservationists aren’t the only ones worried about the bill. Representatives of nine communities wrote to the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in protest.
“Instead of taking land around their villages, Sealaska wants to take land around our villages,” Edna Bay postmistress Myla Poelstra told SitNews. “Sealaska wants Congress to rewrite the law. Our towns are having none of that.”
While S. 340 wends its way through Congress, the U.S. Forest Service is currently accepting public comment on its 2008 Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan). The plan proposed moving away from logging old growth forest. But, so far, “Nothing has happened,” says Peluso. “There’s no schedule, no timeframe” for how long it will take the Forest Service to finalize its plan after the public comment period ends on June 30.
With Sealaska hoping to gain control of 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest, it’s more important than ever to protect old growth stands that remain on public lands, says Peluso. So while S. 340 awaits discussion in the Senate, she says, “what makes the most sense is to focus on [transfering] the Tongass management from old growth to other areas.”
There are places to log—but those shouldn’t include rare, old growth forest.