Governing the Tongass: National Forest Conflict and Political Decision Making

By Nie, Martin | Environmental Law, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Governing the Tongass: National Forest Conflict and Political Decision Making

Nie, Martin, Environmental Law

      A. National Forest Law
      B. The Tongass Timber Act of 1947
      C. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA)
      D. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)
      E. The Tongass Timber Reform Act.
      F. Summary
      A. Clear-cutting Old Growth, Wildlife, and Subsistence
      B. Roadless Areas
      C. Subsidies
      D. Community Stability and Economic Development
      E. Analysis
      A. Forest Planning
      B. Administrative Appeals
      C. Higher-Level Decision Making
      D. Appropriation Politics
      E. Science
      F. Litigation
      A. Legislative Reform
      B. Public Participation and Collaboration
      C. Community Foresto.


Management of the Tongass National Forest (Tongass) in southeast Alaska is one of the most divisive, intractable, high-profile, and longest running environmental conflicts in the United States. This Article examines the Tongass by asking three questions: what factors drive this conflict, how has it been dealt with in the past, and how might it be dealt with in the future? It analyzes the Tongass by examining the dominant "drivers" of this conflict and the political institutions and decision-making processes set up to handle it.

The paper is not an exhaustive history, nor is it written by someone who has long played a role in the politics of this place. I write about the Tongass as an outsider and from a bird's-eye view. This has its drawbacks, for many of the devils are in the details. But it also has its advantages because it presents an opportunity to look anew at many of the entrenched divisions and questions important to this story. The goal is not for an outsider to propose "the solution" to the Tongass, but rather to find out what the Tongass can teach us about conflict and public lands decision making. The Tongass is appropriately used as a springboard to investigate more inclusive issues important to public lands governance. By no means is the Tongass situation the norm, but, as in medicine, analyzing the most pathological cases can have diagnostic value.

The narrative used here relies heavily upon traditional policy and legal analytic methods that are supplemented with extensive personal interviews conducted throughout southeast Alaska during the summers of 2004 and 2005. (1) Work was done in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and more remote places on Chichagof and Prince of Wales Islands. Representatives and people affiliated with the United States Forest Service (USFS), Department of Agriculture, timber industry, conservation groups, Native corporations, wildlife management, and various citizens, scientists, and political representatives and their staffs were interviewed. They were given an opportunity to explain how they interpret the underlying drivers of this conflict, how it has been managed, and how we might proceed.

The story of the Tongass is told by analyzing the dominant themes, patterns, and drivers of this conflict. A number of natural resource-based political conflicts in the United States seem to have an underlying logic about them, and so too does the conflict of the Tongass. Thus I use an analytical framework that I believe is quite useful in understanding natural resources conflict and governance in general. (2) Interwoven throughout the Article are numerous factors malting the Tongass particularly acrimonious and intractable, including: the promises and overextended commitments found in public lands law, scarcity, symbolism, surrogate issues, tribal values, place-attachment, framing and communication patterns, the media, scientific disagreement and uncertainty, electoral politics, political strategies, mistrust, and the various venues of adversarial governance.

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