In its announcement to strip protections of the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to hit its stride on endangering indigenous lives.
Nestled within the Alaskan panhandle, the Tongass is home to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. A temperate rainforest that spans about 16.8 million acres, the land boasts rich woodlands, medicinal plants, wild game, and other resources that nourish and sustain their traditional way of life.
According to the Alaskan Forest Association, approximately 37 percent of Tongass’s forested acres were open for commercial use in 2015, and this number will continue to grow.
Because of its timber, the national forest has fallen victim to logging and other industrial developments, resulting in increased inaccessibility of food and medicine to the tribes. Conventional stores are not a good alternative, given their inflated prices and scarcity in the largely isolated area, so the Tongass functions as a primary source of nourishment and aid.
On Oct. 28, the USDA presented its decision to exclude the Tongass from protection under the 2001 Roadless Rule, which prohibits land leasing for coal, gas, oil, and any clearances for wood and transportation for the remaining 58 million acres of national forests in the U.S.
The day after the USDA released this amendment, the U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the USDA, posted a notice expanding commercial access to logging on an additional 9.3 million acres, further putting the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people at risk.
Joel Jackson, tribal president of the Kake Village in the Tongass National Forest, disapproved of the expansion in a letter condemning the U.S. Forest Service for their performative and hypocritical actions. He says that the decision on the Tongass National Forest directly contradicts their mission of “sustain[ing] the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” as it directly harms those who the Forest Service valiantly claims to serve.
As reported by The Guardian in 2019, economic benefits of expanded logging and leasing cannot be used as an excuse for the devastation of these communities, especially when logging only makes up a small portion of Alaska’s profits, with tourism and commercial fishing spearheading the state’s economy.
For these people who already contend with the disastrous effects of logging, an increase would only push them towards relocation, further displacing them from their own ancestral land. The dissolution of their cultural identity should never have to be a consequence of the USDA’s economic decision.
As this fight to secure and stabilize their homeland progresses, we must advocate for the preservation of the Tongass National Forest alongside the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples by signing petitions and directly donating to them. Only when indigenous voices are uplifted and taken seriously can we ensure that their well-being is no longer jeopardized for the sake of monetary gain.
On the USDA’s failure to acknowledge the value of native lives, Jackson leaves these words:
“Ancient trees in the Tongass forest know our ancestors and current communities’ names and these trees stand as a witness to the passage of time. Our nearby streams know my people’s lifeline to the past. My people, the Tlingit and Haida, […] have lived as witnesses and stewards to the long life of this forest. And our voices have been ignored.”