Matt Zencey is campaign manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign. A 19-year resident of Anchorage, Alaska, Matt temporarily moved to Washington, D.C., last fall to expand the campaign’s national operation. He will be glad to leave behind the chaos and congestion of the Washington area in June, when he will return to the campaign’s Alaska office.

Monday, 1 May 2000

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Every day I come into the office with one thing uppermost in my mind. What can our campaign do, between now and noon on January 20, 2001, to persuade President Clinton that his pending national forest protection policy — his major claim to an environmental legacy — has to include Alaska’s Tongass National Forest?

Arial view of the Alaska rainforest.

Photo: Alaska Rainforest Campaign.

The Tongass is the heart of Alaska’s rainforest, which is the biggest remaining temperate rainforest in the world. The Tongass is our largest and wildest national forest, but it is being chewed up by a logging program that loses more taxpayer money than any other in the national forest system. Because the timber industry has a powerful friend in Alaska’s Sen. Ted Stevens (R), chair of the Senate committee that controls all spending decisions, the Tongass is the only forest at risk of being excluded from the president’s progressive, precedent-setting forest protection policy.

Today, there is good news, compliments of our fellow forest activists who have been promoting this initiative. On page A-5 of the Washington Post, there is a three-quarter-page ad, with the headline, “3 Out of 4 Agree Protect What’s Left of Our National Forests.” The ad, sponsored by the Heritage Forests Campaign, goes on to say, “according to a recent national poll, more than 75 percent of Americans support an historic initiative which would conserve forever the last remaining roadless areas in our national forests.”

A TV ad on the same theme is also running on the morning news shows here in Washington, D.C. Heritage Forests has done a great job getting the president to embrace this initiative and make it part of his environmental legacy. These ads will help deflect some of the torrential criticism launched by Western Republicans in Congress, who have gone ballistic over the president’s proposal, as they do over any move to better protect our nation’s public lands. With Heritage Forests promoting the overall policy, our job is to make sure the president’s initiative will, in the end, cover Alaska’s Tongass.

Should this be the end of the road?

Photo: Alaska Rainforest Campaign.

More than any other forest, the Tongass needs the president’s help. Two million acres of wildlands in the Tongass — an area bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island put together — are still open to exploitation, including more than 400,000 acres of lush old-growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar that have been around for centuries. The Tongass is the one national forest that hasn’t been completely trashed by decades of logging, so there is still plenty there to save. And yet, some 70 percent of all future logging in the Tongass is scheduled for remote backcountry wildlands. Building timber roads into these frontier wilderness areas is incredibly expensive, which is why the Tongass timber program is the worst money loser in the entire Forest Service system.

How can we get the president’s attention and let him know that his environmental legacy is in jeopardy if his forest protection plan leaves out the Tongass? We’re just a small school of fish in a big sea of issues that compete for the president’s time.

We’ve already produced roughly 250,000 comments to the Forest Service, insisting that the Tongass be included in the president’s policy. (The Forest Service is doing the environmental impact statement required to translate the president’s protection proposal into binding federal rules that will guide future forest management.) We’re on track to get twice as many comments — half a million, at least — for the next stage of the official agency rule-making process.

A slew of editorials urging the president to include the Tongass in his historic forest policy have appeared in major newspapers — the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, both San Francisco papers, the Detroit Free Press, the Seattle Times, and two dozen others. As the New York Times wrote, “The plan’s most glaring flaw is that it does not include the Tongass National Forest.” The Seattle Times got it just right: “Adding the Tongass would be a crowning touch to a plan with grand generational sweep.”

So, Mr. President. We hope you are listening.

Tomorrow: What’s ahead in the next eight months.