Tongass triumph! Protection for the world’s largest old growth temperate forest

A coastline fronting 27,000 klm of forest lakes, rivers & creeks

In a highly significant victory for old growth forest, on 25th January the Biden administration reinstated roadless legislation to the Tongass Forest of South Eastern Alaska.

Just over 3.7 million hectares, the world’s largest intact temperate forest, was accorded strict protection along with its massive carbon stocks and rich array of wildlife.

This great achievement by a coalition of First Nation peoples, recreational and fishing interests, working with dedicated conservationists [to whom Wild Europe is honoured to have added its support] sends a clear and timely signal to decision takers in Europe: protection of forest from the EU Biodiversity & Forest Strategies must be equally strict and on the largest scale possible – translating into non extraction and non intervention.

The implications of this decision

Pushing back against the forestry and mineral lobbies, this decision reinstates the 2001 Roadless Rule – lending valuable affirmation to similar legislative initiatives emerging in Greece and other countries: underlining the role of roadlessness as a key instrument of protection in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 

It responds to the wishes of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, together with more than 110,000 representations from members of the general public and organisations – over 95% of which favoured roadlessness. Road building, reconstruction and timber extraction are prohibited (the latter with limited exceptions for local use). 

Pristine forests with high ecological integrity

Echoing with a key emergent theme from COP15 in Montreal, this strength of protection in turn places emphasis on the crucial value of preserving ecological integrity. As such it is an important step in countering the vagueness of pledges to halt ‘deforestation’ – compromised by an FAO headline definition that can effectively permit a 90% clear cut without triggering this term, so long as there is intent to replant and not change land use.

There are strong economic motivations, too, entwined with environmental protection, from the Tongass decision. A thriving 1 million strong nature tourism and recreation sector sees its future secured by the Biden ruling, as do prosperous fishing ventures: Tongass is home to all five species of Pacific salmon whose water purity is now secured for some 27,000 klm of lakes, rivers and creeks.

Catalyst for Europe – a 15% target

The ultimate message from this Tongass victory is one of vision. 

As we near determination of the EU Biodiversity and Forest Strategies, the need to reach beyond the 3 – 4% of remaining old growth forest/primary forest in Europe has never been clearer. 

For proper ecological functioning, sustainable protection, consolidation and connectivity, strict protection of at least 15% of our forests is needed. A pittance that still leaves 85% for managed logging, representing no threat to the industry, but a great step forward towards addressing the twin crises of climate change and species extinction.

This represents just 6% of Europe’s terrestrial area (15% of the 40% forest cover) – and we are expecting much poorer Brazil to protect its Amazon forest, covering over 20%.