Salmon spawn in such abundance that the rivers run red, he says. Brown bears fish and bask with their cubs just a few hundred yards from visitors. Bald eagles decorate the trees like crows or pigeons. Then there are the forest's icy fjords, studded with firs dripping moss and rimmed with glaciers; broad peaks; and awe-inspiring alpine meadows. "These are America's public lands in all of their original splendor," says Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney at NRDC. "Gorgeous landscapes that we've all but lost in the Lower 48."
That splendor wouldn't exist today if not for the Roadless Rule, which NRDC fought valiantly to enact and defend. It guards 58.5 million acres of untouched National Forest System lands in 39 states against logging and road building. The 17-million-acre Tongass is a good chunk of this protected plot. It's the largest national forest in the United States and one of the world's few remaining old-growth temperate rain forests.
"Undisturbed lands are vital to adapting our natural ecosystem to climate change," Lawrence says. The unspoiled acres protected by the Roadless Rule offer essential sites for research into natural systems as well as pure drinking water for 60 million Americans. "They provide a buffer against the spread of diseases and pests and a refuge for plants and animals pushed out of damaged landscapes," he says.
Victoria McDonald, president of the Tongass Conservation Society, says the rule has also been essential for the survival of crucial wild species. "The Alexander Archipelago wolf, for example, is found only in southeastern Alaska," she says. "With more roads come more hunting and trapping—both legal and illegal. The Roadless Rule is the best way we've come up with to create a barrier and protect wildlife."
How it all began
President Benjamin Harrison established a system for designating public lands as "forest reserves" in 1891. But that didn't go far enough: More than half of the forest system's land was still sliced up with roads and development that didn't reserve much space for the actual wilderness. Roads make it easier to log and drill; they also create more opportunities for machines and fires to degrade untouched land and endanger wildlife along with clean water sources.
In 1999, after years of advocacy by NRDC and others, the U.S. Forest Service instituted a temporary road-building moratorium for more than 100 national forests. After many months, during which more than 600 public hearings were held and more than a million comments were received, President Bill Clinton—an enthusiastic supporter of safeguarding wildlands—had his secretary of agriculture sign off on the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in January 2001. "He protected the vast majority of pristine national forest landscapes with the stroke of a pen," Lawrence says.
Within days, however, the Roadless Rule was challenged by timber and energy interests allied with certain state governments. Almost immediately after President George W. Bush moved into the White House, his administration moved to delay implementation. In fact, the first case filed against the rule came during Bush's very first week in office.
The Bush administration even attempted to create a new regulation allowing governors to opt out of the Roadless Rule on a state-by-state basis. NRDC, along with other environmental advocacy groups and several state attorneys general, jumped in to defend America's wildest public forestlands. "Numerous lawsuits filed in the wake of the rule's adoption, and a later Bush administration effort to replace it with a meaningless substitute, were all eventually dropped or rejected by the courts," Lawrence says.
The rule was on and off the books for several years, he says, during which the Forest Service generally didn't attempt to develop or log roadless areas. There was one notable exception: the Tongass, which Bush officials temporarily exempted from the nationwide rule and reopened to timber sales and new logging roads.
After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, NRDC obtained a court order to end the Bush-era exemption of the Tongass under the Roadless Rule and won. Since then, President Obama and his administration have been defenders and promoters of the rule and have worked to remove the injunctions against implementation in other states.
A fragile victory in Alaska
Yet the attacks on the Roadless Rule haven't stopped. Recently, the state of Alaska attempted to re-exempt the Tongass from the regulation and to invalidate it nationwide. "Bashing the feds for locking up Alaska is about as tried-and-true a political message as there is in the state," Lawrence says. It doesn't help that the congressional delegation has long championed the timber industry.
"So many people come to Alaska and wonder, 'How can I make money off these incredible resources, these trees, minerals, and fish?' " adds McDonald.
So far, NRDC and its allies have managed to beat back those attacks. In early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Alaska’s latest attempt to roll back the Roadless Rule, siding with an Alaskan Native American tribe, tourism businesses, and conservationists who urged the high court to keep the Tongass wild. “It feels terrific to put this case to bed,” Lawrence says. “Punching clearcuts and logging roads into America’s last great rainforest wildland produced nothing but controversy, conflict, and uncertainty.”
Today the Tongass remains overwhelmingly road-free, unlogged, and achingly rich in wildlife. Humpback whales still swim offshore from untouched islands smothered in ancient evergreens. Grizzly bears still drink from snowmelt waterfalls and roam through a dense, neon-green understory of ferns and moss. Steller sea lions still bark and commune on rocky outcroppings, and the world's largest breeding concentration of bald eagles is still able to nest and dine on fresh salmon. Now at-risk migratory snow geese even make pit stops in the Tongass en route to the Arctic. The region has commercial importance as well: Salmon and trout fishing from the area's 17,000 miles of clean, undammed creeks, rivers, and lakes provides more than $850 million in economic activity.
This special place will remain just that—so long as the Roadless Rule continues to be upheld and defended by generations to come.