This Sept. 10 marked the 107th birthday of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, America’s largest national forest and one of the few mostly intact temperate rainforests remaining in the world today. No one can deny that the Tongass is a place of breathtaking beauty, yet its significance extends well beyond its ancient, towering old-growth trees, or the deep, clear waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage.

The Tongass belongs to all Americans. Its more than 5,000 salmon-filled streams support a world-class, billion-dollar fishing industry. Southeast Alaska and the Tongass is far and away the most popular destination for tourists in the state – the “gateway” to Alaska, if you will. Like fishing, tourism is a billion-dollar industry in southeast and supports more than 10,000 year-round and seasonal jobs.

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Twenty-five years ago a coalition of senators came together to turn back attempts to clear-cut large swaths of the Tongass. I chaired days of hearings back then only to uncover the same truths that are apparent today: promoting massive Tongass timber sales under the guise of job creation is a bogus argument. Today, timber processing in the region is practically non-existent, and has been for some time; instead, ships carry vast loads of American timber – our national patrimony – across the Pacific to Asia. 

After a prolonged battle, the Forest Service appeared prepared in 2010 to transition away from a history of promoting destructive and unsustainable old-growth logging. But in an unfortunate reversal, just this last spring the agency announced a plan to conduct one of the largest timber sales ever, under the beguiling title “Big Thorne.” 

The fate of the Tongass is at a critical juncture. On one hand, the Forest Service appears bound and determined to proceed with Big Thorne – just one of several proposed sales, the recently approved Big Thorne sale alone would put more than 116 million board feet of old-growth on the chopping block. On the other hand, the agency has again announced its intent to amend the Tongass’ current land management plan and transition out of old-growth logging.

Regardless of how the Forest Service spins this, it cannot harmonize an expressed intent to protect the Tongass’ ancient trees while promoting massive old-growth timber sales like Big Thorne.

For decades the Tongass has been subjected to destructive and unsustainable old-growth logging. It is an atrocity that I have been fighting since my time in Congress, when I introduced legislation to protect more than one million acres of Tongass old-growth forest. And to be clear, the term “old-growth” hardly does these trees justice – they are towering, ancient trees, hundreds of years old and ecologically significant to the people, wildlife and watersheds they support.

Recent studies have proven that our oldest forests are a critical part of the global biological carbon cycle as well, serving as long-term “sinks” for atmospheric carbon, and holding on to it like a sponge for centuries. The Tongass’ capacity to capture and store atmospheric carbon is globally significant.

In addition to being environmentally destructive, the Tongass timber industry is simply a bad investment. Since 1982, American taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion subsidizing the industry’s clear-cutting of the Tongass National Forest. Today the timber industry still receives subsidies averaging more than $20 million annually. Those are staggering numbers, especially when considering Forest Service estimates that logging and milling of Tongass timber supports a mere 109 direct jobs, which means that American taxpayers are paying approximately $200,000 dollars per year for every single timber job in the region. Meanwhile, the tourism and recreation industries contribute approximately $1 billion apiece annually into southeast Alaska’s economy, support thousands of year-round and seasonal jobs, and yet less than $8 million is spent annually on fish and wildlife programs and less than $6 million on recreation.

Today, we are no closer to achieving a sustainable Tongass than we were in 2010. The Forest Service has proposed a 10-15 year timeline to transition away from old-growth, but the Tongass cannot wait that long – and it most certainly cannot survive an old-growth logging binge that destroys the very thing the transition is intended to save.

The majestic trees of the Tongass are part of our American heritage. It’s time to celebrate this American icon and support the industries that drive southeast Alaska’s economy, and we can do both by quickly ending the outdated, taxpayer-subsidized, industrial-scale old-growth timber sales that are harmful to the forest and harmful to the businesses and people that depend on a healthy, vibrant and intact Tongass.

Wirth served in the Senate from 1987 to 1993: 25 years ago he chaired extensive Senate hearings on the Tongass. He currently sits on the board of the United Nations Foundation.