What’s going on with the Tongass?

Newly reinstated protections continue decades of conflict over a 17 million-acre national forest in Alaska.

Deep fjords, thick old-growth forests, glaciers, spawning salmon and bears are all emblematic of the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Clocking in at a vast 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest covers most of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle and is America’s biggest national forest. It also functions as a massive carbon sink, helping sequester the leading greenhouse gas behind climate change. For the last 20 years, however, the forest has been at the center of a political tug of war over logging and the roads that are necessary to carry it out. 


At issue is the 2001 National Roadless Area Conservation Rule, commonly known as the “roadless rule,” which limits logging, road construction, mineral leasing and more in designated areas of national forests. Such “roadless areas” are meant to protect forests that human development hasn’t fragmented or substantially altered. Over half of the Tongass — 9.2 million acres — was designated as roadless, significantly affecting the type of industry allowed there. 

But those roadless protections have been shaky ever since they were created, continually subject to political changes and judicial challenges. The Biden administration stepped into the fray last week, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack confirmed plans to restore protections that the Trump administration had erased. The Federal Register published the official action proposal Tuesday.

Justin Donnelley, a U.S. Forest Service employee, watches Marina Anderson, tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, demonstrate how to process cedar bark during a workshop she organized on cultural uses of forest resources. The two-day workshop on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, was attended by tribal governments, the U.S.F.S., local weavers and carvers.

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:

(Click here for a mobile-friendly version of the timeline.)


Chichagof Island in Tongass National Forest, Alaska.

Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.