Category Archives: Rainforests

Clearcutting the Tongass National Forest is Dead Wrong

In Paris last December, the world turned a major corner on climate change. Some 195 nations agreed on the urgency of the threat. They also agreed to take steps to combat it, including promoting forest protection and reforestation — steps that are necessary, though not in themselves sufficient, if we are to avoid consequences as extreme for our economies and health as they are for the environment.

President Obama deserves much of the credit for this progress. On his watch, the United States has cut greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country. He has become a powerful voice at home and abroad for doing everything possible to cut emissions. And he is showing global leadership in policy areas that go beyond the Paris agreement; for instance, he has ordered an overhaul of the federal coalleasing program, which produces a tenth of all carbon dioxide emitted by U.S. sources.

In the Tongass rainforest, the Forest Service has clung to the old-school logging of some of the most biologically rich, scenically stunning and carbon-dense forests on Earth. 

So it was a surprise to see the U.S. Forest Service — as if in a time warp — recently working counter to that approach in the vast Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. There, the agency plans to continue liquidating carbon-laden old growth for at least another decade and a half.

Forest conservation is only one corner in the race to stem climate disruption that the Paris agreement, though broadly encouraging, did not get us far enough around. But it’s a vital one. As Secretary of State John Kerry said recently, deforestation generates nearly a quarter of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The science is clear: If we want to keep global warming from threatening the existence of coastal areas and low-lying island nations, the world must preserve its remaining old forests and the massive carbon reserves they’ve accumulated over the centuries. The new wood we use has to come instead from sustainably managed plantations and young stands that quickly regrow and recapture the carbon they lose to logging.

Mostly, our federally managed national forests have made that change over the past 25 years. But in the wilds of Alaska, it’s a different story. In the Tongass rainforest, the Forest Service has clung to the old-school logging of some of the most biologically rich, scenically stunning and carbon-dense forests on Earth.

The 17-million-acre Tongass absorbs about 8 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere every year. It also teems with extraordinary wildlife, including bears, eagles, wolves and salmon.

Six years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack decided that enough was enough. He announced a transition away from further logging of Tongass old growth, with the Forest Service “rapidly” implementing this change. This was met with high praise from the public and from scientists like me, but at the agency level, his initiative stalled. The Forest Service went years with no visible progress on the transition, while approving continued clear-cutting of America’s last great rainforest.

This fall, the agency released its final “transition” proposal: 16 more years of old-growth clear-cutting, and maybe more. According to one analysis, the logging proposed under the agency’s plan would release carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to about 4 million additional vehicles annually.

The agency says that neither it, nor the timber industry, can move any faster. In the Pacific Northwest, however, both transitioned to logging young forests almost overnight when courts halted access to old growth. The agency asserts that young Tongass trees growing on old clear-cuts are not yet big enough to log. In fact, though, they are older and larger than the ones that local Native corporation loggers cut and sell abroad, and small local mills say they would be happy to process these trees locally, if they could get them from the agency. 

Keeping global warming below catastrophic levels is not something that can wait until we finally get around to it. We need to be doing everything we can right now. We can’t afford to spend another 16 years or more liquidating Tongass old growth and losing the carbon reserves it stores. And we certainly shouldn’t signal other countries that the vital business of saving their carbon-rich rainforests can wait for decades. 

The Forest Service can and must move much faster and not undermine U.S. progress and leadership on climate change by protecting these biologically rich and most scenically stunning and carbon dense forests on Earth. It is long past the time to take the country’s biggest carbon asset off the chopping block. 

Thomas E. Lovejoy

Thomas Lovejoy is a professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and previously a senior environmental advisor to the World Bank and the United Nations Foundation.

Originally published in The High Country News. 

Take action to save the Tongass National Forest. 

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is nothing short of magical: it contains centuries-old trees and one-of-a-kind wilderness, home to animals like Alexander Archipelago wolves and bald eagles. Your voice is needed to pressure Congress to defund this clearcutting plan and save the Tongass for our children and grandchildren. 

Please sign and share this petition from the Sierra Club. Help protect the Tongass National Forest: Stop the Clearcutting. Thank you.

Feature Image: Alaskan Wolf by Doug Brown. Insert: Tongass National Forest photo by David Beebe 

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Will we soon see another wave of bird extinctions in the Americas?


In the shady recesses of unassuming forest patches in eastern Brazil, bird species are taking their final bows on the global evolutionary stage, and winking out.

These are obscure birds with quaint names: Alagoas Foliage-Gleaner, Pernambuco Pygmy-Owl, Cryptic Treehunter. But their disappearance portends a turning point in a global biodiversity crisis.

Bird extinctions are nothing new. Human activity has already wiped out over a thousand species. But the vast majority of these occurred on oceanic islands. Today, although island species remain disproportionately threatened, we are witnessing a historic shift towards the endangerment of continental species of birds. The Alagoas Foliage-Gleaner, last seen in 2011, looks increasingly like the tip of an iceberg.

This new wave of threats, driven primarily by habitat loss, is deeply troubling because South American forests are home to such a concentration of bird diversity, yet our conservation strategies are still a work in progress.

The trouble with the tropics

To appreciate the significance of today’s looming extinctions in the tropics, we must travel north to the great deciduous forests of the eastern United States, which are haunted by the ghosts of extinctions past. Here, the opportunity to experience the double raps of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, sun-obscuring clouds of Passenger Pigeons, raucous flocks of Carolina Parakeets, and the monotone song of the Bachman’s Warbler is seemingly forever lost.

The blame for these four infamous extinctions has been laid firmly at the door of historic deforestation.

In the early 20th century, the last remaining old-growth fell to the sawmills, almost without exception. Given the ubiquity of the logging, perhaps the most noteworthy feature of this extinction episode is that it did not involve more species.

The European experience was even more striking. The wholesale clearing of Europe’s primeval forest apparently did not cause a single bird extinction. The logical conclusion is that it is very difficult to drive continental birds extinct.

Why then are forest birds beginning to go extinct on mainland South America, home of the largest and most intact tropical forests on Earth?

We must face two equally unsettling conclusions. The first is that forest destruction, particularly in Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest, has reached continental-scale proportions, with almost no nook or cranny spared. And the second is that it may not be nearly as difficult to drive extinct in the tropics as in the temperate zone.

Biologists Stuart Pimm and Robert Askins have argued that the eastern USA witnessed few avian extinctions simply because most of its birds have very large geographic ranges. In South America, the situation is dramatically different.

South America is both the evolutionary cradle and current champion of global bird biodiversity; the authoritative regional list totals 3,368 species – around one third of all the word’s birds. Many of these species have small ranges, restricted to particular countries or even to particular mountains or forest types.

Unique features of the life history of tropical birds led to an overly rosy assessment of their future. Author and academic Bjorn Lomborg, for example, claimed that the lack of extinctions following the destruction of Brazil’s Atlantic forest showed that the biodiversity crisis is overblown.

But extinctions may lag far behind forest loss, a phenomenon known as the “extinction debt” which may be paid over hundreds of years.

Tropical birds typically live for longer than their temperate counterparts. Thus, the last pairs of rare species may make their last stand in their fragmented forest redoubts for decades. Indeed, several species have paid this price, and more may already be committed to extinction.

The last known Alagoas Foliage-gleaner photographed in Pernambuco, Brazil in November 2010 Ciro Albano/NE Brazil Birding

Need to develop strategies

The situation in northeast Brazil is particularly dire.

A few dozen Alagoas Antwrens cling to survival in less than six tiny forest patches. The Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, presented to science along with the Antwren for the first time in the 1980s, was known from only two patches. The last known individual was photographed for the final time in November 2011. We can only guess how many more species will be lost from this region where new species are discovered and others are disappearing on a near-annual basis.

But what of Amazonia, the last great tropical forest wilderness and bastion of tropical biodiversity?

Although deforestation rates have fallen since 2004, there are still grounds for concern. Pressure on existing protected areas from dam-building and mining interests is increasing, and the existing reserve network poorly protects the hardest hit regions.

Arable fields in eastern Amazonia, former forest haunts of the endemic Belem Curassow, illustrated in the inset to the right of the similar Bare-faced Curassow. This former species was last documented in the wild decades ago. both images Alexander Charles Lees, curassow specimens ©Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

Furthermore, Amazonia is divided into different biogeographic regions known as ‘areas of endemism’ that each contain species found nowhere else. Even today, taxonomists continue to recognize new divisions in Amazonian birds, often elevating former subspecies to species status. The Belem Curassow was recently recognized as a species and occurs only in the most deforested part of the Amazon. The last documented record in the wild was over 35 years ago.

Unless a population is discovered in the embattled Gurupi reserve, this species may be the first recorded Amazonian bird extinction. Hot on its heels is the Iquitos Gnatcatcher, known only from a tiny and heavily deforested area of unique stunted forest in Peru. Only six pairs are known, and the bird has proven harder to find every year.

Some of these species need immediate and drastic conservation interventions, but their plight seems to be largely ignored by governments and international environmental groups. Restoring forest around these last fragments is crucial for long-term population viability.

However, for some species captive breeding with an eye to future reintroduction may be the only way forward. Such measures have already saved the Spix’s Macaw and Alagoas Curassow from global extinction – populations of these species exist only in captivity. However, while we have centuries of experience breeding parrots and gamebirds, we know far less about breeding small songbirds.

In fact, most of what we know about managing songbird populations comes from islands, and it is unclear how well this knowledge will translate to the mainland. Island species are adapted to maintain small populations and may be better able to recover from genetic bottlenecks. And, quick fixes such as controlling invasive predators have helped to restore populations. But mainland birds face a different suite of threats, dominated by habitat loss.

Clearly, we must not assume that tropical forest birds will prove as resilient to human activity as their temperate brethren. But though the situation is critical, we also see grounds for optimism.

In Peru, for instance, new endangered species legislation has convened a working group to develop a conservation strategy for the Iquitos Gnatcatcher. In the meantime, a small reserve has been created that protects the few remaining territories. Across the border in Brazil exciting plans are being drawn up to reintroduce the Alagoas Curassow back into the wild.

There is an immediate need to support and expand such actions. The next five to ten years will be critical for many species of South American birds teetering on the brink of extinction.

Feature Image: The Iquitos Gnatcatcher hangs by a thread in small patches of stunted forest near Iquitos, Peru. Only six pairs are known. José Álvarez Alonso, used with permission.


Species lost from the eastern forests of the U.S. – from left to right: Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Bachman’s Warbler. Alexander C. Lees ©Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, Author provided