This past May, I had a chance to experience the Tongass National Forest, traveling by boat through the islands and fjords of Alaska’s panhandle (see “Tongass” on page 24). Although I had visited the state many times before—camping on the ice off the frigid northern coast near Barrow to cover a bowhead whale survey, photographing wildlife at Denali National Park, watching millions of migrating shorebirds at the famed Copper River Delta—my journey to southeast Alaska last spring was particularly memorable.
At 17 million acres in size, the Tongass is by far our country’s largest national forest. It has some of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen—rugged mountains, hanging valleys, massive blue glaciers, and vast expanses of old-growth forest. Indeed, the Tongass comprises fully one-third of the remaining old-growth temperate rainforest in the world—and yet it has faced industrial-scale logging for more than half a century, leaving extensive clearcuts and second-growth forest crisscrossed with logging roads in areas that had been trackless wilderness. The Tongass deserves better.
Some hopeful signs have been emerging recently. The U.S. Forest Service intends to shift the emphasis of timber-harvesting in the Tongass away from the roadless, old-growth forest areas—which is good. But history has shown that we must be ever vigilant if we are to preserve such irreplaceable national treasures as the Tongass.