Tongass National Forest, National Geographic Magazine

Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, a chain of misty, fjord-footed mountains and over a thousand islands, is home to Tongass, the largest national forest in the U.S. and roughly 30 percent of the old growth temperate rainforest left in the world.

Alaska’s rich natural resources have always lured trappers, hunters, gold miners, and fishermen. Loggers and oil companies followed. At times, the bounty seemed endless, but each industry has taken its toll.

Many Tongass communities began as logging camps. The camps turned into towns and although logging activity has declined, many families stayed on because of the benefits of close-knit, small town life in the wilderness. The people are very self-sufficient. Men hunt and fish to sustain their livelihoods.

Cutting trees is a good way …

Tongass National Forest, National Geographic Magazine

Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, a chain of misty, fjord-footed mountains and over a thousand islands, is home to Tongass, the largest national forest in the U.S. and roughly 30 percent of the old growth temperate rainforest left in the world.

Alaska’s rich natural resources have always lured trappers, hunters, gold miners, and fishermen. Loggers and oil companies followed. At times, the bounty seemed endless, but each industry has taken its toll.

Many Tongass communities began as logging camps. The camps turned into towns and although logging activity has declined, many families stayed on because of the benefits of close-knit, small town life in the wilderness. The people are very self-sufficient. Men hunt and fish to sustain their livelihoods.

Cutting trees is a good way to make a living and raise a family, and the men take pride in their skills. The amount of harm done to the landscape is debated. Locals see that after a cut, trees don’t have to be replanted and sprout up on their own.

Although one timber faller makes a small dent in the woods, the cumulative effect of clear cutting in small patches over the years is evident. 5,000 miles of roads were carved into the remote landscape to clear-cut whole swatches of forest.

Taxpayer money has been subsidizing the timber industry. Since 1980 Tongass timber management has cost U.S. taxpayers roughly one billion dollars, making it the largest money loser in the entire national forest system.

A big surprise for most visitors is that two-thirds of this national rainforest is glacial ice, rock, muskeg bog, and scrub forest. Only one-third is “productive forest,” or trees that translate into dollars, and only a tiny sliver (4%), is old-growth. These remaining magnificent stands protect the diversity of the forest.

It takes approximately 20 to 30 years after clear cutting for a forest to regrow to a stage where very little light reaches the forest floor, and this stage will persist for another 200 years. Only then will the forest return to the ancient conditions crucial for fish and wildlife. Brown bears, or grizzlies, and black bears depend on the old-growth stands, as do the rural human inhabitants because of their reliance on subsistence hunting and gathering.

Tourism is the fastest growing industry in Southeast Alaska. Nearly a million people visit every year, drawn to the region’s vast and awe-inspiring untamed land and its wildlife. But as more roads are built more people come, adding more pressure to push further into the wilderness.

Tongass may be the ultimate tourist experience, but a balance must remain to protect the natural resources.

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