Northwest Tribes United With Southeast Alaska Tribes to Protect the Tongass

Op-Ed by Terri Parr, Executive Director, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest IndiansJan 27, 2020

The United States government is proposing to remove protections from nearly 10 million acres of critical national forest land in the state of Alaska. This rollback in important environmental safeguards threatens the food security and livelihoods of Southeast Alaska Tribal residents whose sovereign lands are nearby, impacts some of the world’s last remaining old-growth forests, and imperils efforts to grow a sustainable tourism industry. During our annual winter convention in October of 2017, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) passed a resolution calling on the Forest Service to fully protect designated roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest, our country’s largest national forest.

On October 17, 2019, the Forest Service, housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommended removing all currently protected roadless areas in the Tongass in its upcoming draft management plan. This initiated a 60-day public comment period that ended on December 17. Over a dozen Southeast Alaskan Tribal governments and many more individuals, from the Craig Tribal Association to the Organized Village of Kasaan and others, have spoken out in opposition to this plan. One of these Tribal leaders, Joel Jackson, President of the Organized Village of Kake, a federally recognized tribal government, has taken a stand against the U.S. Forest Service and brought the plight of his home, the Tongass National Forest, to our attention.

ATNI is a 65-year old nonprofit organization representing over 50 Northwest Tribal governments from Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Southeast Alaska, Northern California and Montana. As an inter-Tribal, advocacy organization we are dedicated to promoting and protecting Tribal self-determination and sovereignty. Our purpose is to provide a forum for sharing information, discussing a range of issues that impact across the Tribes, and using our collective voices to pass resolutions on policy matters.

In passing our resolution on the Tongass National Forest, ATNI is fulfilling what we were created to do: supporting local tribes in Southeast Alaska in the fight to protect traditional homelands and way of life. ATNI recognizes that the pristine nature of the Tongass forests are integral to and inseparable from the cultural traditions and subsistence of local Tribal entities. Accordingly, we urged the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to “select the ‘no-action alternative’ as the preferred alternative in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska – Roadless Rulemaking process,” to maintain current protections for many Southeast Tribes’ customary and traditional use areas.

The Forest Service’s proposed removal of protections for 9.5 million acres would open some of the world’s last remaining old growth to logging that would impact local Tribes’ customary uses of these lands. President Jackson and other Tribal leaders in the area have told Alaska Senator Murkowski this, have presented at a U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, and testified during Forest Service hearings.

It’s clear that the only corporate special interests would gain from the removal of forest protections would be the timber industry which, using taxpayer subsidies, would immediately move to clear cut our traditional homelands. As Joel stated at our convention when he presented this information to us,

“we depend on our forests and salmon streams to sustain us, and logging threatens those streams. Our traditional hunting and fishing practices are critical because they put food on our tables.”

The Forest Service itself seems to agree that logging endangers salmon streams. In a Jan 28, 2018 Tweet, the Forest Service stated “past logging activities on the Sitka Island of Alaska damaged the intact salmon stream habitat” and announced a new program to restore the damaged watershed and improve salmon production. Additionally, over 200 commercial and recreational fishermen and fisherwomen in Alaska recently added their names to a letter to the Forest Service making the same point and urging roadless protections for the Tongass National Forest remain in place.

Let’s listen to what Tribes, fishermen and fisherwomen, and many others in Southeast Alaska are saying. We have a very limited time left to ensure the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t allow clear cut logging on some of our last remaining pristine lands. Tongass roadless protections are an integral part of the identity of local Tribes and should be protected as once they are gone, they are gone forever.

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