Save the Wild Beauty of the Tongass Rainforest

Save the Wild Beauty of the Tongass Rainforest

Words by Elsa Sebastian

If you’re here with me in this corner of the digital realm, I’m going to assume that you care about wild places, climate change and fighting for what’s beautiful in this world. You eat wild salmon because it’s delicious and  also because you know that what’s good for grizzly bears is also good for you. 

If you’re with me so far, I also know that you’d feel magnificently alive in the Tongass National Forest. 

At seventeen million acres, the Tongass is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world. It’s an archipelago of over one thousand rainforest islands on the edge of the Pacific Ocean; a place where trees are made of salmon bones, and raven songs are held captive by infinite moss. A place where beauty often has an edge. 

The Tongass is public land, but it’s also my home. I grew up in a tiny fishing village of 30 people, surrounded by unfragmented rainforest, on the largest island in Southeast Alaska—Prince of Wales. In the summers my family would go out on our little wooden fishing boat and catch salmon, in the winter we’d hunker down at our homestead on the edge of the Tongass.

The Tlingit name for my home island is Taan, which means Sea Lion. It’s the third largest island in North America, and the most aggressively clearcut island in Southeast Alaska. When I was a little kid in the early 90s, there were logging camps just a few miles south of our village.  From the cabin that my parents had built from driftwood, we could watch tugboats pull huge barges of ancient trees away from our island. My home island is only 135 miles long, but it’s crisscrossed by over 2,500 miles of logging roads. 

In the late 90s, the timber boom finally collapsed, mainly due to a lack of profitability that persisted despite heavy subsidies. But, there was also a shift in public perception of the timber industry. The American public was disgruntled after learning that the US Forest Service was selling 500-year-old spruce trees to internationally owned pulp mills for the price of cheeseburgers, and that tax-payers were losing 98 cents on every dollar spent on the Tongass timber program. 

The closing of the massive pulp mills that had chewed through thousands of acres of rainforest marked the end of the timber boom in Southeast Alaska. It also marked a victory for the commercial fishermen and conservationists who had been working for decades to push the US Forest Service to manage the Tongass for values beyond timber. People were fighting for salmon habitat, plentiful deer, and lush beauty. In 2001, those values were uplifted when Clinton enacted the Roadless Rule, which protected roadless forests across the United States, including nine-million-acres of unfragmented wildlands and forests in the Tongass. 

Almost 20-years later, in response to a directive from the Trump Administration, the Forest Service has proposed a total exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. This means that these hard-fought protections for the Tongass may be eliminated before the next election. 

This is where you come in. Because these are public lands you are their steward. We all have the opportunity to let the US Forest Service know how the Tongass should be managed. 

Public comments on the US Forest Service’s plan to remove Roadless Rule protections from nine million acres of the Tongass are due on December 17th. Submitting a personalized comment will help demonstrate that this issue is about far more than propping up local economy, this is about climate change, salmon, and the resilience of Southeast Alaska

Here are some values that the Tongass should be managed for: 

  • The Tongass, known as America’s Climate Forest, is the largest carbon sink of all of the national forests in the United States. Studies done by the USFS demonstrate that the Tongass holds 10 - 12 % of the carbon stored in the United State’s national forests. Research has shown that protecting old-growth forests is essential to the climate fight. Right now our nation faces an unprecedented threat from global climate change. We have a responsibility to protect ancient forests as natural buffers against climate change.
  • Millions of wild salmon spawn in the Tongass. Every year commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska harvest 49 million wild salmon that were spawned in the streams and rivers of the Tongass, and the rest return to the forest to reproduce and nourish wild animals and massive trees.
  • The Tongass is a globally significant refuge for healthily functioning coastal rainforest ecosystems; home to bears, wolves, deer, birds, and salmon.
  • Logging the Tongass is costing taxpayers a colossal amount of money.  Tax Payers for Common Sense have recently reported that $600 million federal dollars have been lost to Tongass logging since 1999.

Here’s how you can submit a comment:

Write a unique comment and submit online through the US Forest Service website.

Sitka Conservation Society has created a comment tool that will help you submit a unique comment. Find it here.

Send your comments on Alaska Roadless Rulemaking and logging in the Tongass National Forest to the U.S. Forest Service by Dec. 17.



Elsa Sebastian, is a life-long Alaskan who grew up in the fishing village of Point Baker on Prince of Wales Island. For most of her 20’s, Elsa captained a commercial salmon troller, fishing the wild coastline of Southeast Alaska. These days, Elsa deckhands on a drift gillnetter in Bristol Bay, and spends her winters working in conservation. Elsa founded the Last Stands project in 2017 to learn more about what remains of the worlds largest coastal temperate rainforest, the Tongass. Since founding the project she’s bushwhacked and beach-walked through hundreds of miles of forest and coastline, and sailed to threatened last stands of old-growth on her home island of Prince of Wales. Elsa is a 100 ton licensed captain and adventures from a 38-ft ketch sailboat, the Murrelet.

Photos by Colin Arisman.

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  • I just discovered the Salmon Sisters and your website today. So sorry I did not have time to give a comment by Dec. 17th. I too grew up in the Tongass National Forest and treasure all it has to offer. I fished, camped, skied and hiked in the beautiful land of the Tongass and am very concerned about what might become of it. I grew up in Juneau and my family lived there for many, many years. My grandfather, Jay P. Williams, wrote a book called “Alaskan Adventure” as he first arrived in Alaska in 1906. My father, Dean Williams, lived in Juneau for 94 years and was an avid outdoorsman and well know in Juneau. On behalf of a group of girls who graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1965 and love the land, I wish you continued success. I will closely watch this site and am so glad I discovered it. So, from “the Juneau Girls” happy fishing!

    Janice Burgman on

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