U.S. legislation threatens oldest, tallest trees in Tongass rainforest

Jeremy Hance
February 27, 2012

Old-growth tree in Tongass temperate rainforest. Such trees may be as old as 800 years. Photo by: John Schoen.
Old-growth tree in Tongass temperate rainforest. Such trees may be as old as 800 years. Photo by: John Schoen.

Up to 17 percent of the tallest old-growth trees in the Tongass temperate rainforest could be cut under new U.S. legislation, according to a report by Audubon Alaska. The report argues that the legislation under consideration (S 730 and HR 1408) would resurrect the banned practice of "high-grading," which allows loggers to select the largest, most-ancient trees across the forest for cutting despite their ecological importance. The legislation is a part of a controversial 65,000 acre logging concession in Tongass to Sealaska Corporation, which is owned by 20,000 members of Native communities, from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes.

"Congress recognized the problem of high-grading on the Tongass and took action to ban the practice in 1990," said Matt Kirchhoff, Audubon Alaska’s director of bird conservation and co-author of the report, in a press release. "The legislation now being sought by Sealaska Corporation would not only return to 'high-grading' of the biggest and rarest trees on the Tongass, it would effectively mandate it."

Under the legislation, put forward by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and local Representative Don Young (both Republicans) Sealaska could target trees in volume class seven, i.e. the oldest and tallest trees in the rainforest, with impunity. In fact the bills allowed Sealaska to select outside designated boxes for logging, including over 12,000 acres of the biggest trees in the Tongass. Many of the trees in this size have already been lost to historic logging, making such stands, often between 300 and 800 years old, exceedingly rare. Research has shown that old-growth forests are the most biodiverse and sequester the most carbon.

"The remaining stands of very large-tree old growth, the stands of really big trees, are extremely rare and account for only one-half of one percent of the 16.8 million-acre Tongass," explains Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska’s director of policy and report co-author.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris, however, told the Associated Press that the Audubon report mischaracterized the legislation, and that Sealaska was working to avoid logging in sensitive areas.

The logging concession is an extension of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that compensated native tribes in the area for lost lands. For Sealaska, the concessions in Tongass would represent the last commitment to the company. However, critics say the company has a long-time reputation for clearcutting forests and selling the logs to Asia—to fetch a higher price—versus employing local mills and using sustainable logging practice. Sealaska is the largest landowner in Southeast Alaska, owning over 290,000 acres of land before the Tongass concession.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 27, 2012).

U.S. legislation threatens oldest, tallest trees in Tongass rainforest.