Tongass timeline


To understand the context of the latest policy shift, here’s a brief timeline of significant disputes over the future of logging in the Tongass:

Time immemorial to present: Alaska Natives, including the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, inhabit the Tongass, sustained by the forest’s rich diversity of plants and animals. Today, Alaska Natives are leading the fight to conserve the Tongass.     

1902: President Theodore Roosevelt designates the Tongass as a forest reserve; five years later, it becomes a national forest after the forest reserves are transferred to the newly created U.S. Forest Service. Small-scale logging occurs in the Tongass from the 1880s through the 1950s.  

1954: A pulp mill opens in Ketchikan, Alaska, with a contract to process 50 years of Tongass timber for the Forest Service. A second big pulp mill opens in Sitka five years later, also with a 50-year contract, spurring job development in remote Southeast Alaska. The pace of logging accelerates. 

1990: Congress passes the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which starts to put limits on logging, capping timber harvests and restricting cutting near streams where salmon spawn. A few years later, forest managers adopt a plan that prioritizes logging regrown, rather than old-growth, areas.   

March 1997: Alaska’s last pulp mill, Ketchikan Pulp Co., shuts its doors after 40 years. Nearly half of the forest’s old growth had already been cut down in the preceding decades, and more than 1 million acres were clear-cut, so environmentalists sue to limit further habitat destruction and logging of the oldest trees. 

January 2001: In its final days, the Clinton administration adopts the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, though Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, prevents it from going into effect until the following year.  Every Alaska governor, from 2001 to today, lobbies leaders in Washington, D.C., to rescind the roadless rule, citing its impacts on the regional economy, even though statistics show that timber accounts for just 1% of Southeast Alaska’s jobs, compared to fishing and tourism, which account for 26%.

June 2003: The Bush administration agrees to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule to settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Alaska. 

May 2005: The Bush administration repeals the original roadless rule and replaces it with a weaker version that allows states to opt out. Several Western states — California, New Mexico and Oregon — and conservation groups sue the federal government, seeking reinstatement of the original rule, while legislation with the same goal is introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

September 2006: A ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California reinstates the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, saying its repeal violated both the National Environmental Policy and the Endangered Species acts. However, the 2003 exemption for the Tongass remains in force. 

March 2011: A ruling in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska reinstates the Roadless Rule in the Tongass, vacating the 2003 exemption. (The exemption is later found to be illegal.) Two years later, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ends a challenge by the state of Alaska over the rule, ruling that the statute of limitations has run out.     

2013: Management in the Tongass continues to evolve: Forest Service efforts to address sustainable forestry direct more logging toward younger growth stands, and an updated land management plan in 2016 clarifies the need to continue the transition away from old-growth logging. The plan includes provisions like watershed protections to support tourism and fishing, though Alaska’s congressional delegation introduces legislation in later years to repeal it. Meanwhile, timber sales — and lawsuits seeking to prevent them — continue in the Tongass. 

August 2018: The U.S. Department of Agriculture announces it intends to create an Alaska-specific version of the Roadless Rule. 

February 2019: The Forest Service releases a summary of over 140,000 public comments on the roadless rule; the majority oppose changing it.  

October 2020: The Forest Service under President Trump issues an Alaska-only repeal of the roadless rule, thereby opening 9.3 million acres of Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and red and yellow cedar forests — most of it old-growth timber — to logging. Five tribal nations of Southeast Alaska, represented by national law firms Earthjustice and the Natural Resource Defense Council, challenge the decision in court. 

November 2021: The Biden administration announces new policies to protect the Tongass, including a reversal of the Trump-era 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule, and it begins the formal process to reinstate the original roadless rule. “Having protections for close to 10 million acres of old growth means that we have the resources needed to continue teaching our traditional practices, continue harvesting our traditional foods and medicines and to not only prosper as Indigenous people, but to come to the world’s aid right now so people can learn our ways of living and our ways of being,” Marina Anderson, tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, tells The Washington Post. “In the future, we would hope that tribal governments are listened to, and properly consulted with, in the beginning.”

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