Indigenous Leaders Fight To Save America’s Largest National Forest

September 10, 2019

The Trump administration wants to open millions of acres of Alaskan forest for mining, logging, and development. Osprey Orielle Lake of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network explains how activists are trying to make sure that doesn't happen

The Trump administration wants to open millions of acres of Alaskan forest for mining, logging, and development. Osprey Orielle Lake of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network explains how activists are trying to make sure that doesn't happen


Indigenous Leaders Fight To Save America's Largest National Forest

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

Environmental advocates are fighting to protect America’s largest national forest from threats of destruction. The Washington Post reported late last month that President Trump’s administration is trying to open that forest to mining, energy and logging industries. Their sources said that Trump asked US Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to find a way to exempt the Tongass National Forest from a Clinton-era logging restriction. That restriction prohibits road construction and timber harvesting in roadless areas in designated national forests. And if the administration succeeds in this rollback, some 9.5 millions of acres of Alaskan forest land could be affected, but groups in Alaska say they’re not going to let this happen.

Now joining me to talk about this is Osprey Orielle Lake. She is the Executive Director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. Thank you so much for being here today, Osprey.

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So you have been working directly with groups in Alaska who’ve been fighting this issue for a really long time, for years. What are some of the actions that groups in Alaska are doing to resist this proposal, and what groups have been leading the way? I know that you specifically, of course, work with Indigenous women environmental leaders.

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Yeah. This fight has been going on for a long time. In fact, there is a history of legal battles against the change of the roadless rule, really fighting to stop any rollbacks. The roadless rule has been under attack since 2001 when it was implemented, and so I do foresee the real possibility that there will be some litigation. Some of the litigation has been led by Earthjustice and other groups, and many of us will be rallying around that. But most importantly, since we heard this report about the Agricultural Secretary Perdue, one of the things that we really want to bring to the public attention is that, whether it’s this fall or early next year, we know that the US Forest Service is going to be delivering their draft environmental impact statement for public review, and that will be basically outlining this proposal to roll back the roadless rule.

There’ll be a period of about 60 days where they’ll be open to public comments, and our organization, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, SEACC, Earthjustice, I’m sure other groups in Alaska, the Alaska Wilderness Society, will be having on their websites portals for people to be able to make public comments. That’s going to be a very important time for us to all be advocating directly. The last thing I’ll say is that another action people can take right now is that they can write directly to the Agricultural Secretary and express their opposition to the roadless rule being rolled back.

DHARNA NOOR: And, of course, there’s a lot on the line here. Congress designated more than 5.7 million acres of Alaskan forest land as wilderness that can’t be developed under any circumstances, but I understand that if this proposed change actually goes through, the effects could be even more far-reaching than that. Around 9.5 million acres of Alaskan forest could be affected. Could you talk a little bit about the scope of this threat and what’s at stake for the forest, for animals, for people who live there or nearby?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Yes. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we’re so passionate about protecting and defending this forest. One, there are very, very few temperate old-growth forests left in the world. This is one of the largest. There’s a direct impact to the communities who live there, first and foremost, Indigenous peoples. This is the traditional territory of the Tlingit and Haida people that have been completely disrespected. This is a time for them to really stand up. We need to stand with them and stand by them as they protect their traditional lands, their traditional ways of life.

Many of us know that with Indigenous peoples, there’s a deep relationship that they have with the land, so when you destroy the forest, the water, the salmon, and their traditional ways of life, you are in an essence committing genocide against those people because of their deep relationship with the land. It also will deeply impact the fisher people throughout Southeast Alaska, who depend on the salmon runs. If you destroy the forests, you also destroy the rivers. And with that, the livelihood of many people who are dependent on the salmon runs and the role of fishery in the Alaska economy.

There’s so many other impacts— from tourism and the tourist industry. There’s a lot of ways that the economy in Alaska is dependent on those forests remaining natural and wild, let alone, as you mentioned, the incredible wildlife that is there. There’s so few places that are this wild left on Earth, let alone the United States. And so, we really need to keep this intact forest alive and well for now and future generations.

The other thing I will add also, is we’ve been seeing many – throughout the news and we also have many colleagues working in the Amazon, in Brazil, in the forests in Bolivia, and we’re seeing literally fires— not just in the Amazon and South America, but in Siberia, Sub-Saharan Africa this year. There’s fires everywhere and our forests are being destroyed. The last thing we need to do in the face of the climate crisis is to be logging in a beautiful, ancient intact forest like the Tongass. Trees sequester carbon, and that’s essential for climate mitigation, so we definitely don’t want to be cutting down any more trees.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Again, the Tongass is the world’s biggest intact temperate forest in the entire world. The climate crisis, of course, demands that there are these carbon sinks, these kinds of forests, and this kind of wildlife actually makes it so that the globe is more capable of fighting that kind of increasing emissions, those increasing temperatures. Talk a little bit about why you think that, with all of this at stake, with the people, and the animals, and the climate, and the globe at large that could be affected, why would the Trump administration push for this kind of rollback? Who actually stands to gain something from all of this? Who are they responding to?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Well, unfortunately, it’s like a lot of the other issues in our nation right now, which is that the Trump administration is catering to a very small lead of corporations. The main people who will benefit from this is a small group of logging industry and corporations in Alaska, and certainly at the cost of many. So again, it’s this move towards really corporate gain above people and planet, and we just can’t allow that to happen because there’s just not enough benefit. In fact, there’s been a lot of different analysis around the fact that even the logging industry, as it is in Alaska right now, doesn’t even pencil out. In other words, there is a lot of subsidies that the taxpayers put into a lot of these logging operations because they’re not even economically beneficial without those subsidies. So it’s just not a good economic move, and it’s not good for the climate, and it’s not good for communities.

DHARNA NOOR: What about the local economies that could be impacted? You mentioned, of course, that fishermen could be impacted. That’s a huge economy in the area of Alaska that we’re talking about. Could you talk a little bit about how this could really hit people’s pockets, as well?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one, just in terms of the ecology of the land, once you destroy and log or mine in these sort of ecosystems, you destroy the rivers and then the salmon can’t do their normal salmon runs. That will hurt the fishing industry terribly. We also know for Indigenous people who still live from the land— they hunt, they fish, they gather— once you destroy those forests, you also are hurting their economy and also their way of life, as mentioned earlier. We also know there is a big tourist industry there that brings a tremendous amount of money to local people in the region, so it makes zero sense to have a very few a gain from the profit of the logging and mining industry when it will destroy so many local economies and hurt local communities.

DHARNA NOOR: Talk a little bit about the rollback that this would impact. Talk about what those protections are for roadless areas. Were they strong enough? If there was not this kind of proposal, this kind of rollback on the table, would those protections have been enough, or would we have been seeing fights for even more protections for this part of the Tongass?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Well, the roadless rule has been in place since 2001. What we know is that when you put in roads, it immediately means access to commercial industries like logging and mining. That protection is essential, and what I’ve learned from my colleagues in Alaska—And especially from Wanda Culp, who is our WECAN Tongass Coordinator in the region. She’s a wonderful Tlingit woman, and I’ve been out in the forest many times with her, and he has shown me the actual result of when the Tongass roadless rule came into place because in her region in Hoonah, it was logged horribly, clear cut in the 80s and 90s. And I’ve seen now how with the roadless rule in place, the forest is re-growing, it’s replenishing the land, and it’s been given an opportunity to heal itself from a lot of damage that happened, as I said, in the 80s and 90s from clear cuts.

So one of the reasons everyone is fighting so hard to maintain the roadless rule is that we’re seeing really positive results from it, and I really don’t think there’s another way that we could create the proper legislation to protect the forest as much as we can with the roadless rule.

DHARNA NOOR: So how can we ensure that this rollback doesn’t pass? What kinds of actions can viewers take? I mean, of course you mentioned that there’ll be a public comment period. What else can viewers do to really fight against this, and what chance does it have of passing in the first place?

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Well, I don’t have the crystal ball on that. I know that we have to do everything we can. It’s a fight of life and death for people living on the land, the Indigenous people, for local communities literally. And 8% of our carbon emissions in this country are sequestered in the Tongass, so it’s not just for Alaskans. This is something that should be a national issue, and in fact, an international issue as we fight the climate crisis to protect the Tongass.

As mentioned, there’s going to be this public comment period for 60 days for people to contribute to that. I was mentioning earlier, also, I think a very strong move would be to directly write to Agricultural Secretary Perdue and to let him know that we oppose the rollback of the roadless rule. I also think that in the coming months it is likely that WECAN will be putting together another delegation that will be of Indigenous women directly going to Washington, DC to talk to lawmakers, and we will be needing media support for that.

It may come down to a ground fight. I don’t know, but we are definitely all-in if we need to actually stand in the way of the equipment because we’re not going to let this roadless rule be rolled back, and we’re not going to allow more logging in the Tongass. We need our old-growth forests for life, and that’s very, very essential. I’m not sure exactly how this will unfold, but I know that there’s going to be many, many groups involved. There already are. And that I think there’s huge determination to maintain the roadless rule and to protect these sacred forests.

One of the things that was really important about the Indigenous women’s Tongass delegation to Washington, DC when we met with lawmakers, is that we were asking for support for the roadless rule to be codified into law and not just be a ruling. I think that’s a really important distinction because if the roadless rule is codified into law, which some congressional members have already put forward a bill for, that would mean it would be a permanent ruling versus what we have now, which is it being tossed up and discussed over and over again and open to rollbacks like we’re seeing proposed now. So I think that’s another component, is really rallying around the roadless rule being codified into law.

DHARNA NOOR: Okay. Osprey Orielle Lake is the Executive Director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. As you continue this fight and you continue to try to protect the Tongass Forest, please stay in touch. We’ll be covering this continually on The Real News Network, so stay tuned. Thanks for being here.

OSPREY ORIELLE LAKE: Thank you so much.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.