The Fight to Save North America’s Temperate Rainforests

An unbroken blanket of coniferous trees occupies the North American coast from California to the Alaskan islands. A wonder of the natural world, these temperate rainforests are essential to the continent’s health — and they must be protected.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska. (Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images)

It is still possible to stand in a redwood sorel garden, a garden that carpets a remaining grove of the world’s tallest trees in northern California. The flowers of spring — the trillium and the wild iris — are gone but native rhododendron are in bloom. Alas, there are few such groves remaining; the estimate is now 4 percent and the Save the Redwoods League, long the champion of the old growth, is shifting attention to second growth groves, still awesome though not in quite the same way; a 140-foot tree is not a 350-foot, two-thousand-year-old tree.

This, the remnant of the redwood forest, occupies a ribbon of coastal land, often less than twenty miles in width, that stretches from south of Santa Cruz to the Oregon border. These great conifers have thrived for thousands of years, and they still do, given a chance. They are beneficiaries of long, rainy winters and the summer fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.

The California coast redwoods are unique, but only to a degree. As well as their great height, they cool the ground beneath them, retrieving moisture from the summer fog. Three hundred and fifty feet above, they are host to an unseen habitat where another world flourishes, this one in the canopy, an ecosystem that is home to flying squirrels, salamanders, spotted owls, bats, and the ancient marbled murrelets.

Yet, as extraordinary as the redwoods are, they have more in common with their “neighbors” to the north than one might imagine. The redwood forest is in fact just the anchor of an enormous forest, the temperate rainforest that occupies the North American coast from California to the Alaskan islands, an unbroken blanket of coniferous trees, including the tallest trees on Earth. On their northern reach, the redwoods blend into the Douglas firs of Oregon and Washington, gigantic trees in their own right, which then give way in northern British Columbia and Alaska to red cedar, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock. Taken altogether this is a wonder of the natural world and has been called “our Amazon.” Like lungs, these forests breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.

This coastal temperate rainforest is characterized by its proximity to both ocean and mountains. Abundant rainfall results when the atmospheric flow of moist air off the Pacific collides with the coastal mountain ranges.

It is a rocky, stormy, and wild coast, one that everywhere reveals nature at its most spectacular. There are the redwood groves of Northern California, the raging rivers of Southern Oregon, the Rogue Basin, and the Umpqua forest. There is the mouth of the Columbia River, with its huge waves and foaming breakers, where ocean currents and tides collide with the deadly bars. In Washington State, there are the breathtaking sea stacks of the Olympic National Park, the Hoh River, and Quinault River valleys. Also in the park are towering fir, cedar, and spruce trees draped in ghostly mosses. Then comes an inland sea, the Salish Sea, shared by Washington and British Columbia, where snow-laden mountains — the ten-thousand-foot Mt Baker and the eight-thousand-foot Mt Olympus — shelter idyllic islands whose waters are home to the last of the southern orcas.

In British Columbia, the forests thicken and are often accessible only by sea. The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. This forest is home to mountain lions, wolves, moose, mountain sheep and grizzly bears; the Kermode (“spirit”) bear is also found here, a unique subspecies of the black bear in which one in ten cubs displays a recessive white colored coat. In the sea, there are humpback and grey whales, orca, dolphin, seals and sea lions, and in the air, eagles. And salmon, anadromous fish that spend most of their lives at sea but return to the streams of their birth to spawn.

The salmon symbolize the north Pacific Coast, for ten thousand years they sustained not just people but a magical ecological world of plenty for all. They are endangered now, all five species, due to overfishing and rising temperatures, but above all as a result of logging, which has increased erosion, blocked streams, and eliminated shade, raising water temperature.

The jewel in all this forest is the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, 16.8 million acres. This national forest is the largest in the United States and the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world, nearly five hundred miles long with eleven thousand miles of coastline. It is best known for its glaciers; giant cruise ships bring tourists by the tens of thousands to see these great vanishing monuments, sites surely worth seeing but perhaps best not from these ships.

Our Last Sanctuary

There are many reasons to save the Tongass. The forest cools the earth, deters wildfires, cleanses the water and air, and provides shelter for hundreds of creatures, including scores of threatened species — above all, salmon.

Then there is the sheer size of the Tongass, home to the vast numbers of old-growth trees that remain. The big, old-growth trees are highly effective at trapping climate-warming greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing them — the larger the tree, the more sequestered the harmful gases are. The largest trees in the Tongass, cedar and western hemlock, are extremely effective at sequestering carbon dioxide; no single forest in the US can compare.

The process the trees use is simply photosynthesis: the chemical process that occurs in plants when they are exposed to sunlight. In photosynthesis, water and carbon (taken from the atmosphere) combine to form carbohydrates and give off oxygen. The larger the “plant,” the more carbon it takes. So forests like the Tongass are most effective in helping the climate crisis when left standing — but at the moment only nine million acres of the Tongass’s are protected.

The same can be said of all old-growth trees. The old-growth redwood stores more carbon than any other tree, yet when cut down, it loses that capacity. Instead, it releases carbon back into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis rather than helping it.

Still everywhere these forests are threatened. In the United States, where they are not corporately owned, the US Forest Service is likely to manage them. Yet, even these “publicly” owned forests are not safe. The Forest Service is just as likely to enable the loggers as restrain them; even the national and state parks and reserves of California survive only at the whim of giant bureaucracies — these, in turn, are reflective of which parties are in power.

Professor William Russell, a forest scientist at San Jose State University, reports that “mature second growth redwood stands begin to develop old growth features, but are, unfortunately, under threat of commercial logging on public lands traditionally designated as preserves. Commercial ‘restoration’ logging is currently taking place in National and State Parks.”

It is not just the remnant of redwoods — 4 percent of their former number — that is facing the axe: the coastal lowlands of Oregon and Washington are a checkerboard of ongoing clear-cutting, tree farms on a thirty-year rotation, ruling out meaningful recovery.

In British Columbia and Alaska, there is no place too remote, no terrain too inaccessible for today’s loggers and miners; corporate loggers load raw timber directly onto ships bound for Asia. Mining multinationals thrive in the face of compliant governments. Dun and Bradstreet lists five hundred mining companies with offices in Vancouver; these and others forge ahead, oblivious apparently to a ruined earth they leave behind. So, one finds narrow fiords, deep fingers of water rivaling those of Norway, fouled by the runoff of clear-cutting and metal mining.

The power of these private and public corporations cannot be exaggerated. Here in Mendocino County in Northern California, the Fisher family (owners of Gap Clothing) corporation’s Mendocino Redwood Company alone owns 228,000 acres of redwood timberland — and logs it. The US Forest Service remains committed to a “multipurpose management” mission including logging, mining, and grazing.

According to the marvelous documentary study of the Tongass, Understory (2018), the Forest Service in the United States spends far more on conducting timber sales and building roads than it does on reforestation and conservation. “If the wildest, yet-untouched areas of the Tongass, for example, are opened up to logging, it will likely mean even more federal dollars spent on building roads… by some estimates, road-building in the Tongass costs more than $180,000 per mile” at an even greater cost to our climate.

The odds of saving the old-growth forests remain highly unfavorable, though in the face of climate change this seems incomprehensible. And an array of national and regional environmental organizations has entered the field of “forest defenders.” At the same time there are scores, perhaps more, of ordinary people fighting to save their own patch of this forest — heroic individuals in many ways, working in the trenches of the movements. And, increasingly, there are indigenous peoples, who for so long have had their voices at best muffled, most often belittled, stepping out with alternative views of the natural world and how to live within it.

Who can stand under a giant redwood, amongst the largest organisms ever to exist here on Earth and not be humbled? Ordinary visitors as well as environmentalists have long been staggered by the sheer beauty of the redwood grove, together with the inspiration gained from walking amongst them. We are not alone in seeing this. In our age of COVID, Japanese therapists have recommended shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” pointing to its psychological benefits in the face of the pandemic.

We live today in an age of multiple crises, including one of extinction — what is to become of us? And of our lions and bears and bobcats and deer, of the owls and other birds and of all the creatures that we cannot see, yet that make up this extraordinary ecosystem, if the trees are taken? Surely, habitat restoration is called for, not more destruction, lest this silent slaughter continue.

Right now, the crisis of climate change overwhelms all else as an existential danger, an ever-increasing danger to every aspect of our lives and to the Earth itself. The Amazon, quite rightly, deserves whatever it takes to save it. So does this northern jewel of a forest, “our lungs,” our coastal, temperate rainforest. Our Amazon. It is a fight that matters.