Indigenous and Environmental Groups Sue to Save Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from Logging

Conserving the Tongass means preserving the climate, Native ways of life, and ecosystems that are crucial to the local economy.  

Osprey Orielle Lake, Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, and Kari Ames with the WECAN Indigenous Women's Tongass Delegation before a meeting with policymakers on Capitol Hill

Melissa Lyttle

A broad coalition of Indigeneous groups, local businesses, and environmental organizations, including NRDC, recently sued to block the Trump administration from stripping protections from much of Alaska’s 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, a swath of coastal temperate rainforest often compared to the Amazon.

The administration’s decision to open up Tongass wildlands to logging and development will “only lead to the destruction of our homelands and subsequently the destruction of our our communities who depend upon the abundance of the forest,” says Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist and Tongass coordinator for the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International, a plaintiff in the case. Native Alaskan communities—including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people—have relied on the intact forest for food and medicine and to sustain traditional ways of life for millennia.

The U.S. Forest Service announced in October that it would exempt more than half of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, a nationwide protection that helped throttle decades of fast-paced clearcutting in the Alaskan forest. This rollback allows logging companies and other industrial developers to build roads and chop down old-growth trees in pristine stretches of the rainforest, marking one of the most sweeping attacks on federally managed lands by the Trump administration to date.

“The Roadless Rule is a landmark achievement in conserving our natural heritage, our climate, and our public resources,” says Niel Lawrence, Alaska director for NRDC and co-counsel in the case. “It put an end to taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting of our last best wildlands. We’re not going to let Trump get away with this illegal effort to strip America’s last great rainforest of these vital protections.”

The Tongass is home to iconic species like the Alexander Archipelago wolf and all five species of Pacific salmon. It features the highest density of brown bears and nesting bald eagles in North America. “We are deeply concerned about the protection of the Tongass National Forest, where our ancestors have lived for 10,000 years or more,” says Joel Jackson, tribal president of the Organized Village of Kake, the lead plaintiff in the case. “We still walk and travel across this traditional and customary use area, which is vast and surrounds all of our communities to the north, south, east, and west. It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”

Intact ecosystems are crucial for the local economy, including commercial fisheries and small businesses in tourism and recreation. “The Tongass National Forest is Southeast Alaska’s SeaBank. Its natural capital produces economic outputs worth several billion dollars per year to residents, visitors, and society as a whole—and it will generate that output every year, provided we take care of the underlying natural capital of the forest, estuaries, and ocean,” says Linda Behnken, a commercial fisherman and executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “Southeast Alaska’s future depends on safeguarding the natural capital that sustains our economy and cultural identity.” 

Protecting this massive forest’s old growth is also critical climate policy: The Tongass is a dense carbon sink, storing more carbon per acre in its centuries-old trees than almost any other forest on the planet.

The plaintiffs include the Organized Village Of Kake, Hoonah Indian Association, Organized Village of Saxman, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, The Boat Company, Uncruise, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Alaska Wilderness League, NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, Audubon Alaska, The Wilderness Society, Center For Biological Diversity, The Public Interest Network, National Wildlife Federation, and Earthjustice.

“The Tongass Forest is my home,” says Loescher Culp. “The air we breathe, the water we depend on, the land we live upon—all pristine. It is a life to cherish. It is a way of living worth fighting for.”

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