Trump Administration Wants To Open Tongass For Logging : Short Wave The world's largest intact temperate rainforest is in a place you may not expect: southeast Alaska. The Trump administration wants to eliminate a longstanding rule protecting the Tongass National Forest from logging and road construction. Why? And what might this mean for one of the top carbon sinks in the world? Maddie talks with reporter Emily Kwong about the Tongass.

For Many, Issue Of Logging In America's Largest National Forest Cuts Deep

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Maddie Sofia here with our very own SHORT WAVE reporter and sometimes-host Emily Kwong. What do you got for us today?

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Well, I have a story about the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. And guess where it is.

SOFIA: Come on.

KWONG: It's in Alaska.

SOFIA: Alaska - yes, Alaska. That's where you used to report.

KWONG: Yes. Before SHORT WAVE, I was reporting for an NPR member station, KCAW, in the Tongass National Forest. That's the largest national forest in America and the setting for a classic Alaskan radio show - "Encounters."

SOFIA: "Encounters."



KWONG: This is the intro.


RICHARD NELSON: Hi. I'm Richard Nelson from "Encounters," the program of observations, experiences and reflections on the world around us.

SOFIA: I really love it.

KWONG: Yeah, Richard Nelson is a legend in southeast Alaska. He's a scientist. And as I play you a clip from his show, I want you to imagine this place that's 3,000 miles from where we are in Washington, D.C.


NELSON: Well, it's a perfect time here in the middle of summer to get far away from the clatter and racket of life in town and savor the quiet and tranquility. It makes me think of lines from a classic Robert Service poem, "The Spell Of The Yukon," where he writes, (reading) it's the green...

SOFIA: Oh, my God, is he reading us poetry?

KWONG: Yeah.

SOFIA: You never read me poetry.

KWONG: I brought you Richard Nelson.


NELSON: ...It's the beauty that fills me with wonder. It's the stillness that fills me with peace. But often, as right now...

SOFIA: I'm so into this.

KWONG: That's the Tongass. A lot of people are talking about it right now because, last week, the Trump administration announced it intends to open access for logging and road construction there. And this has implications far beyond Alaska.

SOFIA: OK. So today on the show, we talk about the role of the Tongass National Forest.

KWONG: And how a policy change could impact trees that have been storing carbon for centuries.

SOFIA: OK. So we're talking about the Tongass National Forest. Where do you want to start?

KWONG: I want to start with Anthony Christianson.


KWONG: People call him Tony. He was born in Hydaburg, Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island. The population there is just shy 400.

SOFIA: A little baby town.

KWONG: That's true. And Tony is the mayor. He knows the Tongass well, because he lives in it.

ANTHONY CHRISTIANSON: A lot of people say the forest here is almost impenetrable. It's so thick and you can't see anything. So, you know, it runs right from the beach fringe to the top of the mountains we have here on Prince of Wales.

KWONG: The Tongass is massive - nearly 17 million acres. And walking through it, Maddie, it's like being in a fantasy novel, I must say. If you can imagine, you have hemlock and red cedar, yellow cedar, spruce trees. Some of them are enormous - skyscrapers, wide as cars. We're not talking exactly about trees you can hug.

SOFIA: You don't know how long my arms are.

KWONG: (Laughter) We're talking about old-growth forest, some of the most ancient trees in America - 400, 500, even 800-plus years old. And it's here that Tony and his family have hunted and fished for generations. Tony is a member of the Haida tribe and the Tongass is their indigenous land.

CHRISTIANSON: I am comprised of the elements of the land around me because I've lived on deer meat and berries and fish my whole life. It's the main staple at my family dinner. I mean, last night was fried sockeye and greens off the beach. And so it definitely shapes the community here.

SOFIA: And I have to imagine it has, like, a pretty big role in the economy, too.

KWONG: Absolutely. You know, he grew up on the deck of a fishing boat. The Tongass is a huge spawning site for wild salmon on the West Coast. And as a teenager in the 1990s, Tony found work through the logging industry. His family operated a tugboat that helped load massive trees onto ships for export to China, Japan and other places.

How big were these logs that you were pulling on to the tugboat?

CHRISTIANSON: Some of the timber is huge. When you're getting into old-growth, you're talking, you know, five, six feet across the butt.

KWONG: Wow - that's massive.

CHRISTIANSON: Yeah, they're massive trees when you're logging old-growth.

KWONG: This is peak timber. Prince of Wales was dotted with logging camps in this time.

CHRISTIANSON: So just a lot of companies, a lot of people working in the industry and, you know, money was flowing. Those timber corporations were logging a lot of timber and making money at it.

KWONG: This happened in Sitka, too, where I used to live. Trees have long been economically important to the region. But they're critical for something else, too - sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Do you know about the carbon cycle?

SOFIA: I've heard of her.

KWONG: It's that cycle where trees draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away for centuries, store it in their leaves and stems, branches and roots. And that natural process of carbon sequestration in trees - it's really critical when we think about, you know, how much excess carbon is in the atmosphere.

SOFIA: So from, like, a global warming perspective, this is pretty important.

KWONG: Exactly.

DOMINICK DELLASALA: We need those rainforests to survive.

KWONG: That's Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Oregon.

DELLASALA: And the trees will do fine without us, but they're pulling that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and acting as the planet's lungs.

KWONG: So you can imagine why Dominick was pretty distraught when news broke last week that the U.S. Forest Service wants to exempt Alaska from something called the Roadless Rule.

SOFIA: What's that?

KWONG: Well, the Roadless Rule has been kicking around since the Clinton administration. It bans road building and logging on designated areas. But the Forest Service, at the request of Alaskan leadership like Senator Lisa Murkowski...


LISA MURKOWSKI: So you know I always have to talk about the Tongass when we're talking about our U.S. - our forests.

KWONG: She and other lawmakers have been pushing for a change to the Roadless Rule for years.


MURKOWSKI: But about 93% of its lands are off-limits to most development, which certainly does not benefit the 32 islanded communities that are located there. It's really hard to have an economy when everything is off limits to you. More access is needed...

KWONG: And the Trump administration appears to be on board with that. Last week, the Forest Service said it preferred the most extreme option in changing the Roadless Rule - to end all road-building restrictions in the Tongass. It makes 165,000 acres of old-growth forest open for logging.

SOFIA: Right. OK. So this is obviously a very complicated situation, but from a strictly environmental perspective, is that bad?

KWONG: Well, it's troubling, right? If you consider that the Tongass contains an estimated 8% of carbon in America's forests, cutting that down would undoubtedly release carbon into the atmosphere.

SOFIA: And how is that?

KWONG: Well, one way he measures what's lost is through something called the leaky bucket metaphor.

SOFIA: OK. Go on.

KWONG: Picture the forest as a big bucket of water with holes in it.

SOFIA: Done.

KWONG: As long as water is falling into the bucket at the same rate as it's leaking out, there's no net loss of that water, right? Same with carbon - so as long as the forest can capture the same amount of carbon as is being lost through tree death and decomposition, even logging, it's OK.

DELLASALA: But if you cut down that forest, all of a sudden you have punched really big holes in the bucket. And so even though the forest is growing back, you've punched so many holes in that bucket you've lost most of the carbon in the original forest bucket. And those holes are so big from the logging you never really capture the amount of carbon that was in the original forest bucket.

KWONG: So when a tree is cut down in a forest, Dominick definitely cares. And remember Tony, the mayor in Hydaburg we spoke with earlier?

SOFIA: Yeah.

KWONG: He cares, too. He used to earn a living through the logging industry as a young man, but one day while he was out on a skiff - a little boat - he went by his traditional hunting grounds. While cruising the channel, he looked across the landscape and you know what he saw?

SOFIA: What?

KWONG: Clearcut logging - huge swaths of land without trees. He had been a part of the industry for over a decade, remember? But this site, so close to home, hurt his soul.

CHRISTIANSON: I'm supposed to be a big tough guy, you know, and that definitely hit me hard. I had a moment there where I cried a couple of tears, to be honest. It hit me in that way, you know. It was enough that I had felt like I had lost something or somebody that was pretty special to me at that moment.

KWONG: And it's one of the reasons he changed careers. He's now the director of natural resources for the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the local tribe, weighing in on how the forest is used.

CHRISTIANSON: I ended up in the - working for almost 20 years now offsetting some of that timber activity and what it did to the landscape, so...

KWONG: Now, I should say the timber industry in Southeast Alaska is a shadow of what it used to be in the late 20th century, and relaxing the Roadless Rule will likely create jobs. But it would also do the kinds of things to the environment that Tony fears. Alaskans are already struggling with climate change. The state is heating up twice as fast as the global average.

SOFIA: I mean, this feels like a lot of the climate reporting we do, right? It's not straightforward. There are people that need jobs. The economy, you know, obviously needs to prosper in those areas. But it's, you know, at the cost of the environment, which they also depend on. So what happens now?

KWONG: So the Forest Service - they've put out this paper, a draft environmental impact statement on what will happen to the Tongass if the Roadless Rule is changed. And there's 60 days for the public to weigh in on that decision. We don't know what's going to happen with it. It's all up to the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue. He'll make a final decision about the Tongass, about the Roadless Rule by June 2020.


SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. This is SHORT WAVE from NPR. Tune in tomorrow to hear about how researchers are trying to prevent people from hacking AI.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.