Preserving The Carbon Stored On Alaska’s Tongass and Chugach National Forests



 Tracy Arm and Ford’s Terror Wilderness, Tongass NF, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

A new paper, Southern Alaska’s Forest Landscape Integrity, Habitat, and Carbon Are Critical for Meeting Climate and Conservation Goals, published in AGU Advances, outlines the reasons why Alaska’s Tongass and Chugach National Forests should be given protection as carbon reserves. Both national forests have high landscape integrity and are home to wolves, grizzlies, salmon, and bald eagles.

Kayaker on Harriman Fiord, part of the Nellie Juan-CollegeFiord Wilderness Study area (WSA) on the Chugach
National Forest. The area encompasses roughly 2 million acres surrounding western Prince William Sound. Photo George Wuerthner 

I am intimately familiar with both forests. I’ve canoed and kayaked the Inside Passage through portions of the Tongass National Forest, and several times have kayaked through the Chugach National Forest fiords and backpacked areas on the Kenai Peninsula. Both forests are dominated by extraordinary scenic splendor and abundant wildlife.

Map showing the 19 wilderness areas on the Tongass National Forest, Alaska.

The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest covers Southeast Alaska’s Panhandle. A third of the Tongass National Forest, nearly 5,756,000 acres, are federally designated 19 Wilderness Areas.

Kayaking Blackstone Fiord, part of the Nellie Juan College Fiord  Wilderness Study Area of the Chugach National Forest, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

The 5.5 million acre Chugach National Forest lies further north in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula just south of Anchorage, Alaska. Although there are wilderness study areas, there are currently no designated wilderness areas on the Chugach National Forest.

High preciptation nurtures thick forest cover on both national forests. Photo George Wuerthner

Both forests are temperate rainforests with a relatively mild climate dominated by heavy precipitation. For instance, MacLeod Harbor on Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska received 332.29 inches of precipitation in 1976.

The Chugach National Forest has significant areas of glaciation, and being further north, it also has a lower timberline.

Old growth forest on Lake Florence Creek, Admiralty Island National Monument, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Tongass holds 33% of all the carbon biomass stored in national forests, while the Chugach stores 3% with high landscape integrity.

Both forests, due to the overall cool and moist climate, are unlikely to experience carbon losses from wildfire.

Dense old growth forest cover on the Mansfield Peninsula of Admiralty Island, Tongass NF, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

These two NFs together account for about 49%, 37%, and 18% of all bald eagle, brown bear, and gray wolf habitats found on NF lands.

Fireweed and false hellabore, Crow Creek, Chugach National Forest, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

Because the climate tends to preclude wildfire, the authors recommend that these Pacific Northwest “high carbon density forests should be a high priority for protection and conservation to meet climate and biodiversity goals given their landscape-scale scarcity and high value.” The main threat to the carbon storage of these forests comes from logging.

Kenai Mountains, Chugach NF, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner

Logging in British Columbia, in particular, is rapidly removing the carbon storage provided by temperate rainforests. Given the increasing need for carbon absorption, protecting the Tongass and Chugach national forests is critical.

Lynn Canal near Haines Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the United States, there are 154 national forests, but most of the acreage is available for resource extraction. Logging is prohibited on only 19% of these federal forests. Older forests (i.e., unlogged) tend to store more carbon than younger forests, making protecting mature and old-growth forests an essential element of a “Strategic Forest Reserve” system. The Tongass and Chugach hold approximately 10.4% and 0.9% (total 11.3%) of all tree carbon stocks on NF lands.

The abundant precipitation and cool temperatures feeds many large glaciers such as the Davidson Glacier in the Chilkat Mountains on the Tongass NF. Photo George Wuerthner

Due to the cool, moist climate, the Tongass and Chugach together accounted for merely 0.1% of the total forest burn area on NF lands, even though they comprise about 11.4% of the total forest area. Therefore, the Tongass and Chugach are projected to experience much more significant increases in precipitation and much lower increases in maximum temperatures over the coming century. These climate factors suggest that these forests will likely preserve their ability to store carbon.

Wild iris, Lynn Canal, Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

These forests not only store tremendous amounts of carbon, but they continue to accumulate carbon.

Some of the most robust populations of brown bear or grizzly bear are found on the Chugach and Tongass National Forests. Photo George Wuerthner 

Another reason for protecting these forests is their role in preserving wildlife habitat for species like brown bears, wolves, and bald eagles that are uncommon across most of their former habitat in the lower 48 states.

Iceberg in Leconte Bay–Stikine-Leconte Wilderness, Tongass NF, Alaska. Photo George Wuerthner 

The authors of this paper argue that given the reality of climate change, the greatest good for the most people would be achieved by preserving as wilderness and wildlands the land and waters of these forests.


  1. David Beebe Avatar
    David Beebe

    Greatly appreciated George !

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Absolutely beautiful! There is so much value in this.

  3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    I agree with saving the forest from human destruction & killing, but not carbon, though that will be a good byproduct. We should save the forest for its own sake, and for the sake of the lives there, human and nonhuman alike. We need to focus on the Earth and the life here, not on byproducts. Saying we should save a forest for the carbon is like saying that we should eat vitamin C instead of saying that we should eat fruit, which happens to have vitamin C.

    I imagine that as a former Earth First!er, George feels the same. I also understand the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, and this is not meant to minimize that problem.

  4. Angela Avatar

    I spent some months in the mid-90s doing wildlife surveys for proposed timber sales in the Lindenberg Peninsula on Kupreanof Island. It’s a very special area because of the number of subspecies created by the island geography – Queen Charlotte Goshawk, Sitka Black-tailed Deer (very tiny), and Alexander Archipelago Wolf. It is full of endangered Marbled Murrelets – to census them I had to get up at 0200-0230: the adult birds fly in to exchange places at the nest before dawn, which arrives very early in the northern summer! I helped write the wildlife sections of the EIS/EIR for the proposed sale and had to fight against a few project managers who wanted to water down my language. Thankfully my direct supervisor was on my side, as were the other wildlife biologists I worked with. The wildlife are particularly vulnerable to the effects of roads and clearcutting there as the islands are already a naturally fragmented old-growth landscape. I had a wonderful helicopter pilot named Eric – a veteran of the Vietnam War, he was our sole transportation to the study sites, which were all in roadless areas. Some of my most treasured memories are of those days. I learned to love the smell of DEET and was COVERED with bites of mosquitoes, blackflies, and ceratopogonids (“no-see-ums”). Good times.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner