At the top of the list of America’s largest forests is Tongass National Forest, located in southeast Alaska. The land comprises 16.7 million acres or 26,100 square miles and includes islands, glaciers and coastal mountains. It’s managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Here are important highlights about this area that attracts over two million tourists from around the world each year.
Joining Two Large Forests
A major reason why Tongass is so large is that it’s the result of the United States combining two forests, which were Tongass and Alexander Archipelago in 1908. The move was made after President Theodore Roosevelt issued earlier proclamations establishing both wilderness areas as national forests. Tongass was expanded by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925.
For many years this area became a resource for the logging industry. But in the 1990s Congress began making restrictions on tree cutting that called for environmental reviews while cancelling a $40 million annual federal subsidy for harvesting timber. Two major pulp producers closed down due to the restrictions, leading to a cancellation of two 50-year timber contracts.
Since the wilderness area is home to many endangered species, conservationists have strongly advocated limiting road construction, which could hurt wildlife and salmon streams. One of the final acts signed by President Bill Clinton in 2001 was the Roadless Initiative, which prevented the construction of new roads in the area. President Donald Trump, however, removed many of the restrictions in 2020 on building Tongass roads.
Today over 70,000 people live in the Tongass, the largest remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world. The region has shifted from a timber economy to a non-timber recreational business area supporting over 10,000 jobs. About 10 percent of these jobs relate to fishing. The area consists of three Alaska Native nations and 31 communities including Alaska’s state capital Juneau with a population of 31,000. The only other city in the state with a larger population is Anchorage, located northwest of the two big forests with over 285,000 people.
With sparse population, the Tongass retains its quiet wilderness appeal. Tongass is part of the Great Bear Rainforest, which is full of western red cedar, stika spruce and western hemlock trees. The terrain consists of limestone rock and granite. Animals that inhabit the area include black bears, wolves, mountain goats and sitka black-tailed deer. It’s also home to ravens and bald eagles. Sea creatures include orcas, humpback whales and porpoises.
About 40 percent of the region consists of wetlands, while the rest is forested. The Tongass is home to 19 designated wilderness areas, which is the most among national forests. Notable territories include Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, Kootznoowoo Wilderness and Stikine-LeConte Wilderness.
Some of the main attractions for tourism include glaciers, bear viewing areas and sandy beaches. There are also thousands of islands used for recreational purposes. Various types of watercraft such as ferries, sail boats and cruise ships populate the waterways. Popular activities in the area include bicycling, camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, nature viewing and water sports. The region is home to many campgrounds and cabins.