Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

A coalition of tribal, conservation and business organizations has filed suit challenging a decision to open the nation’s largest national forest, the Tongass in southeast Alaska, to logging.

The group seeks to overturn a final decision exempting the Tongass from a 2001 “roadless rule” that banned road construction and reconstruction and timber harvests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had issued the exemption decision on Oct. 29.

The coalition includes Alaska Native tribes, boating companies, conservation groups, and a fisheries advocacy group, “all of whom depend on and advocate for an intact and healthy Tongass ecosystem,” read the court complaint in Organized Village of Kake, et al, v. Sonny Perdue as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, et al.

At issue are the traditional homelands of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, whose ways of life and cultures are threatened by logging, according to the court complaint. “Citizens and members of Alaska Native Tribes, including Plaintiff Tribes, rely on lands in the Tongass, including roadless areas, for fishing, hunting, and gathering foods and traditional medicines.”

"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, in a statement.

“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,” Culp said. “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.”

Organized Village of Kake President Joel Jackson said his people are deeply concerned about protection of the Tongass, home to Indigenous people for more than 10,000 years.

“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,” Jackson said. “It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”

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The 17 million-acre Tongass is a unique ecosystem, the largest remaining temperate rainforest, say the litigants. It provides spawning grounds for salmon, and habitat for salmon, deer, grizzlies and black bear, and as well as plants Natives use as food, medicine, and for arts and crafts. The Tongass covers most of the southeast Alaska archipelago, whose waters are plied by humpback whales, Orca, and halibut.

“Because it is a network of islands, the Tongass is a naturally fragmented ecosystem. The inventoried roadless areas of the Tongass are relatively untouched stretches of intact forest that provide important habitat for old-growth-dependent wildlife, protect healthy salmon streams and fisheries, and harbor carbon stores of global importance,” read the complaint.

“The Tongass contains approximately 29 percent of the world’s remaining unlogged coastal temperate rainforests, a rare ecosystem type globally. In addition, the amount of carbon it stores is equivalent to eight percent of the amount stored by all of the national forests in the lower 48 states, combined,” read the court complaint.

In a statement, the coalition called the Tongass “a champion at absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, as long as its trees remain intact,” and a possible cornerstone of a national climate strategy. “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.”

20110611-fs-tongass-packcreek-038_14281280208_oTeacher trip on the Kootznoowoo Wilderness, Admiralty Island, Tongass National Forest, Alaska. (Forest Service photo by Don MacDougall)

The Department of Agriculture had received 411,000 written comments and petitions when considering the proposal to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule. Most of the comments were in opposition to the exemption.

The coalition said the decision also is “fatally flawed and ignores the advice and expertise of the Tribal cooperating agencies and omits significant issues and concerns.”

Lee Wallace, president of the Organized Village of Saxman, said, “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.”

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“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 Bob Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association. 

He said the Hoonah tribe took part in the review process that led to the exemption of the Tongass from the roadless rule. “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.”

Parties to the lawsuit include the Organized Village of Kake, Organized Village of Saxman, Hoonah Indian Association , Ketchikan Indian Community, Klawock Cooperative Association; and conservation groups such as Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, Sierra Club, and Audubon Alaska. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and local boating and cruise companies are also parties to the suit.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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