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Protecting Tongass: Environmental justice in a pandemic-stricken world

Aerial view of Tongass National Forest
Courtesy of Alan Wu/Flickr

With decreased air pollution in India, reduced carbon emissions in China, and improved water quality in Venice, much of the environmental rhetoric during the coronavirus pandemic has been about nature “healing” itself. Of course, there is value in the optimism gained by signs of nature’s capacity to heal, but now is not the time to ease up on environmental activism. The fight against climate change has not yet been won.

In fact, the environment might be at a greater risk now more than ever, given federal attempts to remove environmental regulations, in spite of strong opposition by tribal governments and citizens. 


The largest intact forest in the United States is currently at risk of being opened for logging, threatening traditional livelihoods of native peoples, levels of biodiversity, and its thousand-year-old trees. The Tongass National Forest is located in Southeast Alaska and is the largest unfragmented temperate rainforest in the world, at 16.7 million acres — larger than the entire state of West Virginia. The forest stores 8 percent of the total carbon in the United States’ forests, more than any other single carbon sink in the United States. That’s approximately half of the United States’ carbon emissions in 2017. The Tongass is an irreplaceable ecological resource and carbon sink. 

Not only that, but the Tongass holds cultural and economic value for Southeast Alaskans. For centuries, Tongass National Forest has been home to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian nations, who currently manage only 1.6 percent of their traditional homelands. Still, many Alaska Natives engage with their traditional homelands for subsistence. Food security has been threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, as ferries bringing food from the Lower 48 are not running, but many Native villages have been able to hunt, fish, and forage in the forest. 

The Tongass is also a popular destination for tourism and recreation, which typically makes up over 18 percent of jobs in Southeast Alaska, with as many as a million tourists visiting Southeast Alaska each year. Meanwhile, the timber industry fails to bring in revenue for the state. Between the relatively low rates of employment in the timber industry and high cost of building roads in the Tongass, the U.S. Forest Service has lost $600 million in its forest management over the past 20 years. Each road in the Tongass costs between $200,000 and $500,000 to build, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over time. 

Most recently, the Trump Administration proposed an exemption to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass, which would open the Tongass to industrial logging and development. Created in 2001, the Roadless Rule protects 58.5 million acres of National Forest System lands in 39 states, including 9 million acres of the Tongass. Even in light of overwhelming public dissent and disruption from the coronavirus, the Forest Service has continued to advance their plan. Allowing the government to remove these protections of the Tongass would set the precedent that protective regulations for other national forests can be overturned for economic gain. 

A Freedom of Information request by the Southeast Conservation Council demonstrated that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal. Over 250,000 comments were written during the comment period, of which 96 percent supported full protections of the forest, while less than one percent supported the Forest Service’s favored full exemption.

Despite widespread opposition, the Forest Service seems to have already made up their mind, failing to fully consider public opinions on their proposal. What is the state of our democracy, if the government fails to listen to the voices of the people?


In addition to public comments and hearings, indigenous groups have actively opposed the Trump administration’s relentless efforts to open up the Tongass. Six tribal governments in Southeast Alaska collaborated to release a statement denouncing the proposal. In November 2019, four Tlingit women of the Women’s Earth and Climate and Action Network delegation traveled from Alaska to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the full protection of the Tongass. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, nine tribal governments asked for a pause in the rule-making process, yet the Forest Service continued with the process. 

The government’s continued efforts to develop such a culturally, ecologically, and economically significant forest without regard for the impacts on indigenous peoples is unjust. Given the current movement to fight racial injustices in this country, it is imperative to advocate for indigenous rights and the protection of their traditional homelands. We cannot stand by and let the voices of those who have depended on this land for centuries be silenced, especially when their homelands and livelihoods are at stake.

For someone living in the Lower 48, the threat to this massive forest might feel distant and irrelevant. After all, we’re living in a pandemic that has disrupted our normal day-to-day lives, the economy, and has taken over a hundred thousand lives in the United States alone. Regardless of our distance from the Tongass and the state of the pandemic, widespread action for the Tongass is crucial. If the exemption is approved, traditional ways of life and cultural practices will be threatened, as well as the ecological well-being of a national forest and carbon sink. While the greatest impacts will be borne by local Alaska Natives, the effects of climate change will be felt by us all.  

The Forest Service under the Trump administration has continued to push to remove protections, despite calls from the public and tribal governments to protect the Tongass and slow the decision-making process. It is crucial that action is taken now, not only in Alaska, but throughout the country. We need to speak up to promote environmental justice and to help preserve the integrity of our democracy.

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Today, I urge you to take action. Call or write to your representatives and express your concern about the current efforts to reduce regulations protecting the Tongass. Share your Tongass Story with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. And tell Secretary Sonny Perdue and the U.S. Forest Service, in whose hands the Tongass’ fate lies, to pause the rule-making process during the pandemic.

Hannah Reynolds is a rising junior in the Department of Anthropology from Rochester, N.Y. She can be reached at Hannah thanks the Princeton Environmental Institute for funding her research on the Tongass this summer and Sitka Conservation Society for their help in writing this article.