The Wildlife Society has had a long history of encouraging the application of science-based conservation for the Tongass national Forest in Alaska — the nation’s largest forest and one of earth’s largest remaining old-growth coastal temperate rainforests. as early as 1979, TWS’s Alaska Chapter developed a position statement on forest practices in Alaska. It was revised in 1985 to cover old-growth forest management in coastal Alaska, emphasizing the need to maintain the diversity of coastal forests like the Tongass and cease the disproportionate harvest of high-volume old-growth trees. The goal was to protect old-growth stands with high fish and wildlife values, and promote analyses of the impacts of forest management and road construction on fish and wildlife resources.
As political pressure increased for conservation reforms for the Tongass, TWS was asked to testify before congress as it considered action on the Tongass Timber Reform Act. John Schoen and Matt Kirchhoff from the Alaska Chapter and TWS Field director Tom Franklin testified numerous times before several House and Senate subcommittees from 1986 through 1988. They used science to emphasize that old growth is rare, provides valuable habitat and ecological services, and is nonrenewable under standard timber rotations. Further, they noted that old-growth harvest targets high-volume stands that are particularly valuable, and that effects of clear-cutting old growth are cumulative and long term.
Prompted in part by testimony from these and other experts, congress passed the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) in 1990. It permanently conserved a million acres of high value fish and wildlife habitat from logging and road construction, and repealed the mandated timber supply and guaranteed subsidy provisions of the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The TTRA also required that timber stands be harvested in proportion to their occurrence in the forest, thus preventing the policy of targeting, or “high-grading,” the best timber lands.
After passage of the TTRA, it was assumed that further high-grading would cease — but that was not the case. The Alaska Chapter challenged the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) over its continued high-grading policy. After many unsuccessful discussions with USFS leadership, the Alaska Chapter sued to prevent the practice. in April 1994, Judge Russell Holland ruled in favor of the Alaska Chapter, finding the USFS inventory methodology “arbitrary and capricious” (Kirchoff et al. 1995).
Today, timber harvest levels are much reduced on the Tongass. However, old-growth harvest and high-grading both still occur. The USFS is currently developing a new policy to transition from old-growth to second-growth harvest and increase forest restoration management, but this policy will take time to implement. The Wildlife Society therefore has a continuing opportunity — perhaps even an obligation — to enlist the expertise of its members in efforts to protect ecologically valuable forests that are crucial for watersheds and wildlife.