Press Release

Lawsuit takes aim at Trump administration decision to gut Tongass National Forest protections

Tongass National Forest

Photo by Nelson Guda

Time is running out to curb carbon emissions, but Tongass logging will only make climate change worse

JUNEAU – Alaska’s 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, sometimes called America’s Amazon, has faced a grave threat since the Trump administration stripped away critical safeguards against logging by exempting it from the federal Roadless Rule just before the election. Today, a wide-ranging coalition of Indigenous Tribes from Southeast Alaska, businesses, and conservation organizations filed a lawsuit targeting the Trump administration rollback.

Earthjustice and co-counsel Natural Resources Defense Council filed the lawsuit in federal court Dec. 23 on behalf of five Alaska Native Tribes, Southeast Alaska small businesses, and conservation organizations. 

The shortsighted rollback jeopardizes the ancestral homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. Many Indigenous communities continue to rely on the Tongass for wild food harvesting and traditional lifeways, and removing forest protections will have staggering consequences for their culture and food security.

The Tongass is also a champion at absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, as long as its trees remain intact. Cherished as a crown jewel of the National Forest system, the forest could serve as a cornerstone for a national climate strategy incorporating forest preservation for carbon sequestration. Yet eliminating the Roadless Rule across the Tongass opens some nine million acres of irreplaceable wild lands to timber industry logging proposals. This could usher in a new wave of clear-cutting, wiping out majestic centuries-old trees and degrading a key buffer against climate change. 

Gutting the Roadless Rule imperils unique wildlife and clean waters, and threatens the livelihoods of commercial fishing families and small businesses in tourism and recreation. The Tongass produces some 25 percent of West Coast salmon, and attracts millions of visitors from throughout the world.

Spokespeople from Alaska Native Tribes, Alaska-based small businesses and The Wilderness Society Alaska State Director Karlin Itchoak issued the following statements:

“We are deeply concerned about the protection of the Tongass National Forest, where our ancestors have lived for 10,000 years or more,” said Joel Jackson, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake. “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.”

“The process used to create the Roadless Rule exemption was flawed, said Lee Wallace, President of the Organized Village of Saxman. “The U.S.D.A ignored its trust responsibilities to tribes, failed to engage in meaningful consultation, ignored widespread opposition to the exemption, and favored the State of Alaska with $2 million in unlawful payments. This lawsuit is necessary to protect Tlingit and Haida peoples’ way of life and resources—not just for today but for future generations.”

“The need for this litigation is a mark of shame upon the federal government for violating the trust and responsibilities it has to the Indigenous peoples of the Tongass. It is equally a stain upon the State of Alaska which colluded with the Trump Administration to circumvent scientific analysis to achieve a desired political outcome,” said Robert Starbard, Tribal Administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association. “Hoonah Indian Association accepted the USFS invitation to join the Tongass Roadless Rulemaking process as a cooperating agency believing that the federal government would approach the effort consistent with the intent of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and sought inclusion of the special expertise and relationship the tribes possess of the lands occupied since time immemorial.  We ultimately withdrew as a cooperating agency when it became clear that our involvement was purely to provide political cover and lend legitimacy to a corrupted process with a preordained outcome.  The Roadless Rule decision is fatally flawed and ignores the advice and expertise of the Tribal cooperating agencies and omits significant issues and concerns.”

"The Tongass Forest is my home. Home to the ancient Tlingit and Haida Indigenous Nations.  It is where my ancestry originates, my bloodline is Indigenous to this land, its DNA is my DNA,” said Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist and Tongass Coordinator for the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network. “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. The repeal of the Roadless Rule will only lead to the destruction of our homelands, and subsequently the destruction of our communities who depend upon the abundance of the forest. This is an attack on our peoples and the climate. The Trump Administration’s decision to open the Tongass to roads, logging and mining is an underhanded misuse of Congressional authority and the battle will go on— we will continue to rise in defense of our homelands." 

“The Tongass National Forest is Southeast Alaska’s SeaBank, providing annual dividends in fish, wildlife, and recreation as well unmatched ecosystem services that include water regulation, provisioning, habitat and cultural wealth,” said Linda Behnken, commercial fisherman and Executive Director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “SeaBank’s 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. Southeast Alaska’s future depends on safeguarding the natural capital that sustains our economy and cultural identity. It is time for decision-makers to see the forest for more than the board feet.”  

“The Boat Company is a small cruise vessel eco-tour operator that provides hundreds of visitors each year with scenic views of southeast Alaska’s coastlines, fjords and forests,” said Hunter McIntosh, President of The Boat Company. “I cannot overstate the importance of inventoried Roadless areas to Southeast Alaska’s tourism and recreation economy. The Roadless Rule ensures these irreplaceable lands will remain protected and continue to draw visitors from throughout the globe. Remoteness, wildlife and scenery form the main visitor attractions in southeast Alaska, and bring in over a million visitors annually.”

“Southeast Alaska hosts two-thirds of all Alaska visitors, making it the most visited region of the state,” said Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise, a small vessel company providing outdoor recreation experiences. “Forest Service lands, particularly inventoried Roadless areas, are critical to drawing these visitors, and generate roughly $245 million annually - over two-thirds of Tongass National Forest visitor spending. We depend on the ability to market and provide unique recreation experiences, and our clients expect to see ‘wild’ Alaska and prefer intact natural landscapes. Clearcutting and timber road construction would force us to divert our travel routes to avoid seeing or being around clearcuts. This would negatively affect the outdoor recreation economy and Southeast Alaska’s reputation as an adventure travel destination.”

“The Trump administration’s removal of roadless protections on the Tongass National Forest is arbitrary and reckless,” said Karlin Itchoak, Alaska state director of The Wilderness Society. "Allowing logging and other industrial development in one of the most important old-growth rainforests in the world not only threatens centuries-old trees, but also jeopardizes one of the planet’s most productive carbon sequestration strongholds and a critical tool for addressing the climate crisis.”


CONTACT: 

Chelsi Moy, Communications Manager, The Wilderness Society, (406) 240-3013, [email protected]


The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. With more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org