In March, NFF friend and author, Char Miller, released a beautiful coffee table book called America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands. We are pleased to be able to excerpt several of Miller’s thoughtful essays in a new blog series we’re calling: “In-Depth: America’s Forests from Past to Present.” The series focuses on National Forests that are part of our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFF’s work on these amazing landscapes, please visit

We hope you enjoy the blog series and Tim Palmer’s gorgeous photos that accompany the book and the posts. You can purchase America’s National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands at fine book retailers and online outlets throughout the country.

Three issues dominate contemporary discussions about the Tongass—wood, water, and fish. The forest’s colossal scale is matched by the intensity of debates over these three resources. At nearly 17 million acres (almost the size of West Virginia), the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S., encompassing approximately 80 percent of southeastern Alaska. Its magnificent scenery and staggering levels of biodiversity are set within thick forests, hundreds of islands, and 18,000 miles of coastline. Its defenders are legion. Whenever a Tongass timber lease is announced, it is as if the Forest Service has sent up a distress flare. Disputing parties converge to argue over the impact that harvesting old growth forests will have on the Tongass’ water and fish.

George Perkins Marsh forged this tight link in the 1860s. He did not live to see the creation of the first forest reserves, let alone the national forest system, and he never visited Alaska. The well-traveled American diplomat thus had no first-hand experience with the Tongass’ almost impenetrably dense stands of spruce, hemlock, and cedar that nurture the world’s largest salmon runs. Yet he wrote the book about why these ecological connections matter.

Against the backdrop of the Civil War, Marsh’s Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) raised the specter of a cataclysm to come. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” Marsh argued. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.” Swinging an axe would have the same effect: “felling of the woods has been attended with momentous consequences to the drainage of the soil,” for in the process of clearing forests “indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated.” Fearing for humanity’s future, he urged Americans to become dedicated stewards of the land and themselves. “We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions, and devise means for maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows, and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven, to the springs and rivulets with which it waters the earth.”

Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord.

-George Perkins Marsh

An early adopter of Marsh’s insights about the necessity to restore woodlands, George Bird Grinnell, popularized them through his editorial column in Forest and Stream, a leading journal devoted to the emerging conservation movement. In 1882, he distilled Marsh’s concepts into thirteen simple yet profound words: “No woods, no game; no woods, no water; and no water, no fish.” Habitat was everything.

This ecological conviction was palpably manifest in 1899 while Grinnell cruised Alaska’s waters as a member of the famed Harriman scientific expedition. He found that the brutal dispossession of the indigenous people, combined with the massive slaughter of seals and the greed-driven fisheries, were horrifying examples of frontier pillage. Especially troubling was the behavior of the canning industry in southeastern Alaska, located in the inlets and bays of what is now the Tongass National Forest. Chasing “eagerly for everything that is within their reach,” an angered Grinnell wrote, the industry’s motto “seems to be, ‘If I do not take all I can get, somebody else will.’” In Alaska, he witnessed a disturbing update of Marsh’s cautionary tale of woe.

Grinnell turned to his close friend President Theodore Roosevelt to protect Alaska. His was an easy request, given TR’s steadfast opposition to the rampant despoliation of the Lower 48: “We do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many,” TR asserted, “nor do we intend to turn over to any man who will wastefully use them by destruction, and leave to those who come after us a heritage damaged by just so much.” Having closely read the Harriman expedition’s reports, Roosevelt was already primed to act. “Natural resource management wasn’t going to be a free-for-all under his administration,” observes historian Douglas Brinkley. “Alaska would become America’s permanent wilderness zone.”

photo by U.S. Forest Service

Roosevelt made good on his word, too. In 1902, he set aside the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve. Five years later, the president created the Tongass National Forest, and in 1908 the two units merged. As happened elsewhere, not all Alaskans believed Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot’s assertion that “the permanent success of the industries of Alaska can best be secured through the establishment of the forest reserves.”

Imagine their delight in 1910 when President William Howard Taft fired Pinchot for insubordination. His termination resulted from the chief forester’s public denunciation of the administration’s attempt to open up coal fields in the Chugach National Forest, a nearly seven-million-acre domain hugging Prince William Sound to the Tongass’ north. So excited were the citizens of tiny Cordova, located in the Chugach, that a jeering crowd burned Pinchot in effigy.

The opposition was happier with the agency’s subsequent attempt to jumpstart local economic development by incentivizing the creation of a local pulp-and-paper industry. It took three decades for this initiative to come to fruition, a delay driven by the long distances between Alaska and national markets. Those spatial constraints remained constant even after mills in Ketchikan and Sitka were established. These plants proved less than profitable despite the Forest Service’s offer of cheap timber at generous terms. In the 1990s, their leases were not renewed and the firms shut down. Logging continues, but on a much smaller scale than once envisioned.

The permanent success of the industries of Alaska can best be secured through the establishment of the forest reserves.

-Gifford Pinchot

One reason for this has been the still-unresolved issues of Native American claims to lands within the Tongass. Their rights were not acknowledged in the 1867 treaty with Russia that brought Alaska into the Union, and were ignored when Roosevelt designated the forest reserves. It took FDR’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to raise the issue. He worked assiduously to establish reservations for the Tlingit and Haida people, but resigned in 1946 before enabling legislation could be enacted. The next year, Congress passed the Tongass Timber Act, which the Forest Service favored because it supported the fledgling pulp industry and because it was silent on Native land rights. “For the Forest Service and advocates of Alaska statehood,” historian Stephen W. Haycock observes, “the primacy of modern capitalist development in the Tongass…was more important than the protection and safeguard of potential Indian land rights and resources, which they interpreted as a threat to that development.”

When they turned a deaf ear to the plight of those for whom the Tongass was ancestral land, the agency and Congress opened the way for a series of corrective lawsuits. Out of them was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Among its other provisions, the act granted new native corporations ownership of 44 million acres in the state, half a million of which was in the Tongass. Over the next two decades, these corporations clearcut most of the timber that had been part of the national forest.

Also cutting into the Forest Service’s timber base was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (1980) which protected 5.4 million acres from development on the forest. After nearly a decade of see-sawing lawsuits aimed at constraining timber harvests on the Tongass, in 2011 another 2.3 million acres were denoted as “roadless,” making it impossible to log or mine within that expanse.

Time and again, one of the central factors in these enduring disputes has been salmon, and how logging has helped cripple their historic runs by damaging the watersheds on which they depend. Since the early 21st century, the Tongass National Forest and its many partners have restored miles of compromised riparian habitat. These efforts are never-ending, however, in good part because timber sales are also facet of the national forest’s objectives.

In the spring of 2014, for example, critics rallied against the 6,200-acre old growth Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island. They argued that such sales are no longer necessary for the local economy because the wood-products industry has been supplanted by tourism and fishing. These two booming industries need these forests to stay as forests. Tourism, for example, lures more than 600,000 annually to the region, many arriving on cruise ships plying the Inland Passage of southeastern Alaska. For them, the dense, green Tongass serves as an inviting arboreal background to the deep-blue waters. Commercial fisheries catching wild salmon make an even larger economic contribution, pumping billions into the state’s coffers. Because “salmon need those trees to spawn,” a local fisherman opined, “this means we need those trees.” George Perkins Marsh and George Bird Grinnell could not have put it any better.


Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. Author of the Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2004) and Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (2012), his latest books include America’s Great National Forests, Wilderness, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013); he co-authored Death Valley National Park: A History (2013) and is co-editor of Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice (2016).


Tim Palmer is the photographer and author of 24 books featuring the American landscape, including the classic photographic works Rivers of America and Trees and Forests of America. His honors include the National Outdoor Book Award, Independent Publishers Award, and Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

National Forest Foundation