Great news came in threes for the American outdoors over the past weeks:
- On Jan. 25, the Biden administration reinstated protections against logging and road building in all 9.2 million acres of roadless areas in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the crown jewel of our national forest system;
- Then on Jan. 26, the administration safeguarded our most visited wilderness area, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, from toxic mining for 20 years; and
- And on Jan. 31, the administration restricted the use of the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska as a disposal site for an open-pit mine, effectively stopping the mining project and protecting the home of one of the world’s last strong salmon runs.
All three places represent the best of our natural legacy. Their wild beauty is as undeniable as their ecological importance. The Tongass’ dense forests, marshes and islands; the Boundary Waters’ winding maze of lakes, streams and ponds; and the headwaters of Bristol Bay support countless animals in the air, on land and in the water.
Both the Tongass and the Boundary Waters also contain many mature and old-growth trees that do the lion’s share of our forests’ work sequestering climate-altering carbon — and in fact, the vast Tongass absorbs 44% of all carbon stored by our national forest system.
Crucially, all three places are living testaments to the wisdom of conservation. They exemplify the idea that many places are too special to log, mine or otherwise despoil. And each year, they inspire thousands of visitors to become better stewards of our planet.
The PIRG movement’s contributions toward efforts to protect these special places date back more than 50 years ago. In 1972, when the Forest Service approved private logging in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area without filing the required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the newly formed Minnesota PIRG took them to court and won.
The Forest Service returned with an EIS justifying logging and eventually prevailed in court in 1978 — but not before MPIRG chapter students raised money and support to launch a new organization, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and gathered 14,000 signed petitions calling on Congress to pass the Boundary Waters Protection Act. The outcome: victory, and the establishment of a beautiful and beloved new wilderness area unlike any other.
The Roadless Rule's 20th Anniversary
And in the late 1990s, we knocked on millions of doors across the country, engaged college students on campuses from coast to coast, and toured with a giant inflatable Smokey the Bear to bring attention to logging and road-building in national forests such as the Tongass. Our staff and volunteers collected nearly half of the then-record 1.7 million public comments delivered to the Clinton administration and helped win the first federal protections for nearly 60 million acres of wild forest by banning the construction of roads through these select areas.
As threats to the Tongass and the Boundary Waters have reemerged over the years, PIRG and, later, Environment America and our network of state environmental groups have continued to educate and mobilize Americans to protect these wild wonders. And over the past decade, our network’s organizations including Environment America, Environmental Action and our newest state group Alaska Environment have rallied the public within and outside of Alaska, alongside local tribes, commercial fishermen and our environmental allies, to protect Bristol Bay and the surrounding watershed from the Pebble Mine project — and the billions of tons of toxic waste and new pipelines and roads it would have brought with it to The Last Frontier.
We’ll keep building support for our next steps forward, including convincing the Biden administration to stop the logging and removal of mature trees on all federal lands and calling on Congress to make protections for the Boundary Waters, Bristol Bay headwaters and all roadless areas in our national forests permanent.
Our deep thanks to leaders in the Biden administration for acting to protect the Tongass, the Boundary Waters and Bristol Bay. Congratulations to all who aided in these conservation victories. Onward.
Senior Vice President and Political Director, The Public Interest Network; President, Environment America
As president of Environment America, Wendy is a leading voice for the environment in the United States. She has been quoted in major national, state and local news outlets for nearly 40 years on issues ranging from air pollution to green investing. She is also a senior vice president with The Public Interest Network. She is a founding board member of Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizers, and Green Century Funds, the nation’s first family of fossil fuel free mutual funds. Wendy started with WashPIRG, where she led campaigns to create Washington state’s model toxic waste cleanup program and to stop the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump site. She is a 1983 graduate of Whitman College. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and dog and hikes wherever and whenever she can.