Though it’s hardly the most famous forest in the US, Alaska’s mighty Tongass National Forest happens to be the largest, stretching nearly 17 million acres or an area roughly the size of West Virginia. The Tongass is also a major American carbon sink, responsible for 44% of the carbon absorbed by the country’s national forests (which themselves absorb over 10% of US annual greenhouse gas emissions).
The Tongass is also home to an array of wildlife critical to the region’s biodiversity and local economy and is sacred land to the Southeast Alaska Native nations. Subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering are a nearly ubiquitous rural practice, with over 80% of rural Southeastern Alaskans participating in these activities, including Indigenous nations like the Tlingit and Haida. Six distinct glaciers all contribute to the freshwater availability of the forest’s watersheds, which are essential for salmon populations and forest health. Although salmon live in the ocean, they return inland as part of their life cycle, bringing nutrients into the forest and supporting its ecosystem health.
The salmon supply in this region is vital for Indigenous food security, and also supports a $986 million industry accounting for around 7,300 jobs in the region. This combination of recreational, commercial, and subsistence fishing along with hatcheries was valued at nearly $5.6 billion in 2018. The commercial salmon catch produced by the Tongass waters alone is valued at over $68 million annually.
Thanks to the above, it’s not surprising that the Tongass has been embroiled in legal battles over who has rights to the land: Native peoples or the federal government.
A Complicated History
The current legal protections for the Tongass originated in the “Roadless Rule,” regulations established in 2001 by the Clinton administration to ban roadbuilding and logging on nearly 60 million acres of national forest lands. But in 2020, Trump repealed this rule to allow more acreage of forest—mostly old-growth timber—to be logged. Although there was widespread citizen opposition to the exemption, Alaska Republicans lobbied heavily for this change and its ability to boost the Alaskan economy, and the Trump administration proceeded with the repeal.
From November 2021 to January 2022, the Forest Service, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture, received approximately 112,000 public comments, mostly in favor of reviving protections for the Tongass National Forest. In January 2023, the Biden administration repealed the 2020 Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule, reinstating protections for the Tongass National Forest as a part of a broader goal to conserve America’s lands and amend Trump-era rollbacks.
Indigenous Claims to the Land
Place names can connect land with its long cultural history—or erase that history. In an interview with Glacierhub, Tlingit scholar Ishmael Hope speaks to the importance of native land sovereignty. When the government claims ownership and renames the forest, he says, they cut off the connection between clans and their cultural ties to the land. “The social and ritual lines of the clan intersect with geographic lines through the pathways and projects of making a living, and living well, on the land,” he says. The place names we use have power, as they can be a reminder of the long, cultural history of the land or an erasure of that history.
Since their arrival, colonists have not only transformed some of the landscape with roads and logging, but they have also renamed and claimed much of the land. Court battles to reclaim this land have been fought since the early 1920s, when Tlingit attorney William Paul created the first Native American civil rights organization.
The 2023 reinstatement was praised by the Native Tlingit and Haida communities, with the recognition that there is still more to be done. Currently, Native interests control only 2% of Tongass land, while the rest is under federal jurisdiction. Much of the original Tlingit and Haida territory was relinquished to the U.S. government by the Indigenous groups, and their legal claims to the land formally extinguished, in exchange for compensation and establishment of specific Native-controlled regions through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA).
The Tlingit are currently seeking a custodial role in the territories to sustain themselves, as well as protect sacred sites in the Tongass. Part of this effort has been the establishment of Native corporations under the ANCSA, which unite Indigenous groups under entities that can make financial claims. Despite new funding mechanisms like the Seacoast Trust, Indigenous communities still lack control over their historically held land.
In 2022, the Seacoast Trust was formed through a $10 million commitment from Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation, and millions of dollars from private donors, including the Bezos Earth Fund. This trust funds the Indigenous stewardship of Southeast Alaskan lands and is part of a larger partnership of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, Sealaska, the Nature Conservancy and other organizations. It marks a crucial step toward Native groups exercising more control over their lands. Although the reinstated Tongass National Forest protections will provide some relief to Alaska Natives, more must be done to mitigate future harms and allow the Tlingit and Haida Nations to act as full partners in the governance of the forest.
The Legal Saga Continues
The story of the Tongass does not end here. On September 8, 2023, the state government of Alaska and a coalition of Alaskan groups, including an electric utility company, filed a lawsuit that threatens to undo the newly reinstated protections. In part, the suit argues that the rule’s prohibition on roads also prevents maintenance and construction of hydroelectric and geothermal projects that could replace the diesel generation much of the area currently relies on.
The fate of the protections is now unclear. If the state government seeks and obtains a preliminary injunction, the protections could be suspended pending the outcome of the case. “We don’t know what will happen if the State wins [its lawsuit], but we do know that everyone else—the Southeast Alaska Tribal Nations, the residents of Alaska, and the entire country, will lose,” says Michael Burger, a professor at Columbia Law School and executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “The Forest Service decision is well supported by science, law and policy considerations, and is fully consistent with policy in place for years prior to the Trump administration’s removal of the previous protections.“
Assuming the Tongass National Forest protections hold, they will provide some relief to Alaska Natives, local communities, and Southeast Alaskan ecosystems. In particular, they will help preserve the health of the local fish population vital to both the economy and way of life in the region. “One never knows how things will go in court,” Burger says, “but to me, this is a no-brainer.”