“Our culture and life was given to us from them, the Tree People.”

                —John Martin, Tlingit Elder 

“We go out to the old growth in the forest with the canopy where the bears sleep and the deer sleep to collect the spruce roots. It feels like you get one real big hug from the trees. The people who call us tree huggers, they’re right. We talk to the trees and we say, ‘Thank you.’ It feels good. That’s why I feel so threatened with all this logging.”

                 —Ernestine Hanlon, Tlingit Basketmaker, 1995 

“Nothing dollarable is safe.”

                 —John Muir 

It seems like generations ago, that moisture laden evergreen land of fjords, tidewater glaciers, ravens, bears, bald eagles, whales, salmon and 11,000 miles of shoreline, the “Amazon of America,” the Tongass of southeastern Alaska. So splendid and luxuriant beyond description, like an emerald mirage, that it enticed Theodore Roosevelt to put aside 17 million acres as protected area at the beginning of the 20th century. It is one thing for the dominant society to see trees, it is quite another to see the forests for the Sitka spruces and the Western hemlocks and the native perspective, which is about consciousness that acknowledges a spiritual similarity between humans and other beings, not just salmon and bears, but even trees. The beings which bond heaven and earth as the first peoples understand all trees. And each tree has its own character, its own identity. The bears who eat the salmon nourish the forests in a feedback loop that is incomparable.

Irene Dundas, Ka Klaa Tlaa, which translates as the Mother Tree of the Tsaqweidi killer Whale Clan Tlingit tribe of the Cedar House of Kake, Alaska says of one specific tree, “That same tree that I used to gaze at, my grandmother’s grandmother used to tell her that this was where the clan women used to birth their children at, hundreds of years ago. For some reason the Tsaaqweidi women used to birth their children under this tree. Later, I understood why there were land otters there. In Tlingot, land otters are spiritual animals so this place was sacred. Otters were guarding this place for the ancestors.”

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration decided to renege on the Clinton era policy called the Roadless Rule from 2001, which would have kept most of the remaining Tongass from clearcutting and road construction, which also affects 60 million acres in 39 states. Some 95 percent of Alaskans support the preservation of this vital ruling. Clinton, in the last days of his administration, wanted to save the Tongass in perpetuity, one of the most singular gems in North America, and the current president in the potentially final days of his tenure, wants to give the lumber industry the green light to the flaying of a piece of the Earth unlike any other in America. How can two so radically different ideas about life on earth co- exist? One has to give. One supports life, the other desecrates it at every turn.

The fight for the Tongass, like the other battles beings waged in Alaska, is for the future of an entire ecosystem as valuable, as regal as the Grand Canyon, or the redwoods and sequoias of California. In this unprecedented time of climate change, what is to prevent an area of 25,000 square miles from simply going up in flames? That 9 million acres should be willingly opened as a sacrifice zone to the lumber industry speaks volumes about our political system and our morality as the dominant “culture.” In the past, parts of diapers were made with Tongass trees and most of the lumber shipped off to China, South Korea or Japan. The Tongass attracts $2 billion worth of tourism and the US Forest Service recommends removing the entire Tongass from roadless designation. Who wills their way to such decisions? Not the Tlingit, the landscapes of their existence is one of reciprocity and ritual honoring of the beings in that forest. Not the vast majority of Alaskans who want to see the Tongass protected. The Tongass itself holds about 8 percent of all carbon stored in the United States’ remaining forests. In a time when California, Oregon and Washington have been reeling from the worst fires in memory, why are we still debating the value of forests?

Some 168,000 acres of old growth would be made available to the timber industry. The timber industry says it would give them flexibility in the difficult global market. Of course, it is more difficult. A wilderness area the size of Mexico has been lost in the last 20 years. Considering Australia just had the largest fires in its history and the Amazon is up in flames. Exactly what would remain of the Earth and its forests if this kind of management were allowed to continue? In a time when world leaders are being asked to meet the Paris Climate Accord and the global emergency facing our planet, to even contemplate cutting a single acre in the greatest temperate rainforest remaining on Earth, sounds like grand larceny for the American people and the wildlife of the area. The Tongass stores 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and sequesters 3 million metric tons every year. Death Valley just recorded the highest temperature on Earth a few weeks ago at 134 degrees. 

Alaska’s battles are the last phase in the battle for what remains of America. It is quite remarkable that the governor of Alaska should want exemption from the Roadless Rule, having met with those in charge of the White House. It seems equally remarkable that Lisa Murkowski wants exemption for the Roadless Rule saying that protections are stifling the economy. Mining and hydroelectric operations could also become a fixture on the landscape if the powers that be have their way. The current administration has already rolled back 100 environmental regulations. Andy Moderow of the Alaskan Wilderness League says the administration has chosen to “take road well travelled by continuing to spend 10’s of millions of dollars every year to expand logging roads for a dying old growth timber industry.”

How long will it be before we don’t have forests left? Young redwoods have already been incinerated in California. Since 1600, 90 percent of virgin forests have been cleared. As I write, over 150,000 acres of prime forest is burning in northern Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park. Many would have to agree that the lumber industry itself is a relic of the past, perhaps in the same measure as the fossil fuel industry. The lumber industry is an extractive exploitation that has many friends among Republican presidents including President Bush, who wanted to increase logging in Oregon. Look at what has happened to Oregon. Susan at the Governor’s office in Alaska insists that Alaskans will “not allow the Tongass to become a free for all.” And while some Tlingit and Haida elder say they allowed some sales in the recent past for “logging trails’’ the politicians in cahoots with the lumber industry see dollar signs where every tree stands today.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Lavina White of the Haida Royal family whose name is Thowhegwelth, of the Raven Clan, knows this battle is about freedom. She says we in the U.S. and Canada talk about freedom, but we have “no idea about freedom.” When people could go the river and fish or harvest without fear was a “wonderful time.” But the commercial fishing fleets came and they lost their boats, “beached all our men” and blocked them all out of the fishing industry. And Lavina’s people speak of prophecy “because it seems to be coming about…the one that warns when the birds begin to nest on the ground, that will signal the beginning of the end. That doesn’t have to mean the end of the world, but maybe the end of one thing and the beginnings of something else. I know by the way they are cutting down the forests that the birds will have to nest on the ground because there won’t be any trees left for them to nest on.”

That prophecy, which predates even climate change predictions from scientists generations ago, is a lesson the dominant society needs to absorb and fast. Now that climate change is here, we have to act on what can be salvaged. Ecosystems are not commodities. Putting one of the most irreplaceable forests on the chopping block is one of the greatest crimes this nation can commit. Witness the wholesale eradication of forests in the Amazon for cows and soybeans. With conflagrations all about us, the mere idea of wanting to further bulldoze and ransack a green shrine unique in the world should shame us. The tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life have long been separate entities in the Western mind. Native people make no such distinctions. Without its forests America won’t survive and neither will the world. We need to vote for policies that are sane and show some measure of respect for life. Right now, with all continents having had millions of acres of their forests afire, humanity is plunging a stake cut from a newly downed tree into the heart of what is left of the planet.

“We knew everything about nature, as it should be understood. And yet we've been shunted aside in our own country, and we're invisible. Everything goes on AROUND us. They like our art form, they like our philosophy, they like our lands and resources, but not us. That has to change.”

—Lavina White, Haida Elder

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.


Published on Oct 27, 2020