Neither business nor government built the Tongass

By now Mitt Romney’s remarks referring to 47 percent of Americans as victims is tired news. Pundits across the country have chewed it to pieces just like they did with President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark in July. However, neither were classical political gaffes. Both are entirely relevant to the debate about the roles business and government should have in shaping the path to individual success. And in Southeast Alaska lives a clue that goes beyond the President’s message but came from the genius of a Republican President. It’s called the Tongass National Forest.


To begin with, both candidates took part of their opponent’s message out of context. Obama told an audience on the Late Night Show that “if you want to be president, you have to work for everyone, not just for some,” implying that Romney wouldn’t look out for the interests of almost half the population if he were elected. What Romney meant by saying it wasn’t his job to worry about people who pay no income tax was that, as a candidate, he wasn’t focusing on trying to win their vote.

Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech wasn’t, as Romney implied, an insult directed at people who have started successful businesses. The President was saying that government built roads and bridges, and the internet it developed have significantly contributed to the success of American business owners.

And that’s where the Tongass enters this debate. It was set aside as a conservation reserve by the federal government more than a century ago. It was one of 150 National Forests that President Theodore Roosevelt established by presidential proclamation. In his autobiography he wrote that he acted to prevent exploitation by “land grabbers” and “representatives of the great special interests, at the expense of the public interest.”

Roosevelt was a Republican with progressive ideals that included a distrust of large corporations. His administration broke up the huge Standard Oil monopoly. It imposed new government regulations on the railroads. And he was a conservationist who, on August 20, 1902, “reserved from settlement, entry or sale, and set apart as a public reserve” the islands from Chichagof to Prince of Wales. Six years later the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve would be merged with the latter established Tongass National Forest that today it encompasses 17 million acres.

In size, the Tongass is comparable to the forested lands in the states of Maine and Minnesota. However, ninety-six percent of Maine’s 17.7 million acres and just under half of the 16 million acres of forests in Minnesota are privately owned. No one can say for sure what would have happened to the Tongass under such circumstances. In all likelihood though we’d have a lot less say in how the land and its waters were managed. And the fact that it’s public land ensures we have ample access for hunting, fishing and recreation.

What’s Romney’s position on public lands? In February he told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal that he doesn’t “know why the government owns so much of this land.” He said he’d find it unacceptable if federal agencies prevented “the population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources” such as timber. He may as well have said that the only value of public lands comes from the extraction of natural resources.

As residents of Southeast Alaska, we rely on the Forest Service to manage the Tongass for multiple uses, not just for its timber value. But we’re not victims crying for government entitlements. That label belongs to the big timber companies who operated the pulp mills for four decades. When they couldn’t get enough of what they wanted, which was government subsidized logging, they left.

Of course Roosevelt didn’t build the Tongass. The forests were here long before the Russian and European explorers sailed into the Inside Passage. But as an avid outdoorsman who frequently hunted in them, he believed it was “vandalism to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature.” He understood the forests were created by a force greater than businesses and the government could ever be, and he entrusted us to work together to ensure they’ll still be here for future generations to enjoy.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.


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