Tongass National Forest Celebrates Another Anniversary

By James Lewis on September 10, 2010

On September 10, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. This month, the Forest History Society is publishing a history of the region, Tongass Timber: A History of Logging and Timber Utilization in Southeast Alaska, by James Mackovjak (you may remember Jim from his cross-country bike trip documented on this blog). Tongass Timber, now available in our online store, traces the history of the decades-long attempts by commercial interests and the U.S. Forest Service to develop the region’s forests, examining their motivations and resulting impacts. This historical background reveals the forces that influence present choices about forest management in Southeast Alaska.

The Tongass National Forest originated with the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, which Roosevelt established in 1902 under the old forest reserve system. The Alexander’s creation was controversial because Alaskans feared that the forest would no longer be available for development, a general misconception about the purpose of the forest reserves. Forester Gifford Pinchot sought to assure the territorial governor, John Brady, that the opposite was the case, declaring at the time: “[T]he permanent success of the industries of Alaska can best be secured through the establishment of forest reserves.” It was the first of many controversies over economic policy and the Tongass.

Five years later, the Tongass National Forest was created on the recommendation of forest supervisor W. A. Langille and F. E. Olmsted, the forest inspector sent out from Washington, D.C. As Jim Mackovjak notes, Olmsted’s was “the first detailed examination of Southeast Alaska’s forests by a professionally trained forester.” The announcement of Tongass’s establishment in Forestry and Irrigation, the predecessor to the American Forests magazine, is here. If you want a history of the agency in Alaska, check out Lawrence Rakestraw’s A History of the United States Forest Service in Alaska. It is, however, nearly thirty years old.

Langille is regarded by many as the father of forestry in Alaska. A skilled outdoorsman and mountaineer who deeply impressed Pinchot when they met in 1896 in Oregon, Pinchot hired him first as a forest expert and eventually as forest supervisor of the Alexander. Langille projected what a colleague termed an “abrupt, outspoken and occasionally mildly terrifying manner.” You can learn more about this fascinating man from this article.

But that’s not all! For you, our dedicated blog readers, we have an exclusive excerpt from Tongass Timber, which gives the history of the establishment of the Tongass, including the origins of its name and how Alaska went from being designated as District 8 to becoming Region 10 on the National Forest System map. You’ll also find maps showing how the Tongass grew from 2 million to 16 million acres.

We’d like to thank the following for making Tongass Timber possible through their generous funding: the Kendall Foundation, Mike Blackwell, the SB Foundation, the Alaska Historical Society, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Lynn W. Day Endowment for Forest History Publications.