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10 Ago 2020

Christen Dobson, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Aug 2020

In-depth Interview with Wanda Culp and Osprey Orielle Lake - WECAN

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Katherine Quaid/ WECAN International

BHRRC: Can you tell us about the Tongass Rainforest and why it is important to protect it?

Wanda: The Tongass Forest in S.E Alaska, the “pan handle”, is the tribal territory of the Tlingit and Haida indigenous nations for over 14,000 years. It has half of the U.S. coastline - 11,000 rugged miles surround thousands of islands, big and small. Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah Tlingit ancestral homeland region is Icy Strait and Glacier Bay National Park, which holds my family’s historic and sacred beginnings. 

We are People of the Forest and People of the Sea. Our society derives from the matrilineal Laws of Nature’s life cycles, our existence is indigenous to the Tongass Forest.

The 1980-90s brought the logging industry onto the lands surrounding our traditional use and occupied areas, focusing on the “old growth” by the rivers and streams that provide life to five species of wild salmon stocks. Protesting these attacks brought forth the protective voices of our mothers and grandmothers, who turned to the “national interest” voices of Americans after realizing that the decimation of the Tongass was federal and state government generated.  Americans forced the creation of the 2001 Roadless Rule under U.S environmental and land conservation laws.  Another portion of these protective laws of the land is for continued customary and traditional Alaska Native use of natural resources – our way of life diminished to one word: “subsistence.” 

As is happening globally, Indigenous Women are on the front lines of all battles to protect the wild lands and life that we depend upon, demanding to be heard.

Our voices were a spit in the wind until Osprey Orielle Lake, the founder of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, WECAN, enjoined us with thousands of other female warriors around the world.

Osprey: As Wanda shared, the Tongass is the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, who have lived with and enriched the region's forest, rivers and oceans for thousands of years before colonization and corporate take-over of traditional life-ways and governance structures.

Protecting the Tongass Rainforest, the largest temperate old-growth rainforest left in the world, is crucial for upholding Indigenous sovereignty, stopping extractive industries threatening the Earth’s critical living systems and our global communities, and protecting one of Earth’s best climate solutions - natural forests.

IUCN has reported that halting the loss and degradation of natural systems and promoting their restoration have the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change mitigation scientists say is required by 2030. The Tongass is key to maintaining the equilibrium of our global climate and preventing the worst damages of the accelerating climate crisis. This ancient, carbon-rich forest has been called by some “America’s Climate Forest” due to its unsurpassed ability to sequester carbon and mitigate climate impacts. We must protect these ancient old-growth forests that not only support our global climate but also play a critical role in the traditional lifeways, medicine, and food systems of the region’s Indigenous communities.​ 

As many studies have demonstrated, one of the most important ways to protect forests is to uplift Indigenous peoples and their rights because they are the best stewards of their own lands. In 2016, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network was very honored that Wanda “Kashudoha” Loescher Culp, Tlingit activist, became WECAN’s Tongass Regional Coordinator. Since then, we have been able to further deepen our advocacy in the Tongass and develop long-term strategies to revitalize initiatives to protect the Tongass Rainforest and Indigenous rights and lifeways in the region.

BHRRC: What type of threats are the Tongass Rainforest and local communities facing? 

Wanda: Both national and state governments are industrial/corporate-driven and see everything on land, in the water and air, as a commodity in the world of capitalism. Zero regard/respect is given to indigenous living other than to capitalize on our history, knowledge, and abilities as a tourist attraction. I have traveled throughout my families’ homeland; I know who I am and where I come from. I am intrinsically tied to my past ancestry and the future of my children and grandchildren. I come from a matrilineal society of protectors.

It is more important than ever to protect the reasoning and experience of our beloved ancestry who created our successful lifestyle within Mother Nature’s rules of survival. Every indigenous living culture on earth knows of Nature’s 1st rule: balance. Never take more than you can give back/replace. The largest threats to our forests and local communities is industrial dominated taking, taking, taking.

Osprey: Our work in the Tongass builds upon decades of action, research, and advocacy by local community members and Indigenous leaders.

The Tongass forest has already suffered severe clear-cuts back in the 1950’s and then again in the 1980’s. Logging in the Tongass destroyed sacred sites of the Indigenous Peoples of the region, damaged areas of traditional and customary use, and harmed watersheds and rivers as well as the global climate, and now the Trump Administration is pushing to implement policy for this same destruction again.

Under the Trump Administration, threats to the Tongass have intensified, and WECAN has been involved in various action campaigns, advocacy delegations, petitions, filing of public comments and participating in protests concerning upcoming timber harvest plans and particularly the US Forest Service’s (USFS) proposal to exempt the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule. 

The 2001 National Roadless Rule is an important measure that protects nearly 50 million acres of forest lands in National Parks from roadmaking and subsequently logging and other exploitative industries that rely on roads to access the forest. At the bequest of Alaska’s Congressional Delegation, the Trump Administration is working to exempt the Tongass from the 2001 National Roadless Rule, calling for the repeal of the ruling across more than 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, opening the forest to further clear-cut logging, road making, and potential mining exploration.

As we see history prepare to repeat itself, we know that old-growth logging is not beneficial to anyone. Clear-cuts are not only bad for the forest, but they decimate salmon populations, negatively affect local economies, destroy important carbon stores, and will mean cultural genocide for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian whose life-ways are deeply interwoven with the Tongass. Research has found that logging in the United States is a lead driver of carbon emissions and since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have linked increased deforestation practices to zoonotic disease outbreaks, such as the novel coronavirus.

Additionally, new budget data reveals that the USFS has continued to lose millions of dollars on Tongass timber sales in recent years. In total, the USFS has lost approximately $600 million over the last twenty years or $30 million per year on average. In other words, road-building and logging in the Tongass is not even profitable.

As parts of Alaska are warming at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the planet, maintaining an intact Tongass ecosystem is critical to providing climate change solutions for Alaska and international climate efforts. Additionally, keeping the Tongass intact will also protect unique habitat for hundreds of species, like salmon, bears, and deer, all of which, in turn, support local economies based on fishing, hunting, and tourism. Currently, tourism and fishing account for 25 percent of jobs in Southeast Alaska while logging only provides 1 percent.

If the federal government is successful in opening up the Tongass to more catastrophic, industrial-scale logging, they will not only destroy the forest and further harm our global climate, but they will actively contribute to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous Peoples whose identities, cultures, and livelihoods are integral to the forest. 

Katherine Quaid/WECAN International

WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation rallies alongside Jane Fonda during #FireDrillFridays in Washington D.C., November 2019. Photo Credit: Katherine Quaid/WECAN International

BHRRC: WECAN has organized two delegations of indigenous women from the Tongass Rainforest in Alaska to Washington, D.C. Can you share more about the objectives and results of those delegations?

Wanda: In early 2019, WECAN organized and then partnered with Earthjustice to send a delegation of four Indigenous Women of the Tongass to Washington D.C to advocate the protection of the 2001 Roadless Rule against existing political exploitation. Dressed in the formal robes of our ancestors, we visited 16 offices in two days, the first being the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue’s and to both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol. This excursion was strategically timed well before the official Draft Environmental Impact Statement’s (DEIS) public comment period. Our objective was to impress upon Washington D.C two facts:

1. (AK-R) Senator Lisa Murkowski used the State of Alaska governor’s office and State of Alaska-created Native Corporation, Sealaska, to say that over 90% of Alaskans are in favor of weakening the 2001 RR through her DEIS. Murkowski’s numbers are narrowly corporate-driven and inaccurate. 

The fact is that more than 90% of Alaska’s population want the Tongass Forest protected as it is now designed. The WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation openly called out Murkowski’s use of state government and Sealaska, our Alaska Native-owned regional corporation, to support her self-initiated DEIS. Backed up by the media, we created awareness of reality in D.C officials' minds.

  1. Coming face-to-face with protective female indigenous representatives donned in our traditional ceremonial clothing speaking from the heart made a memorable impression in D.C. We were not ignored, nor taken lightly. 

The history and knowledge we presented was recorded as we provided first-hand education on the need for the Tongass Forest and its communities to repair back to the balance of Nature. The Tongass Forest is worth more standing than cutdown by chainsaws and making way for the mining industry.

Osprey: In March 2019, we had the great honor of organizing and facilitating a historic delegation of Indigenous Women from the Tongass Rainforest of Alaska to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Tongass and the continuation of the Roadless Rule. This Delegation to D.C. was the first time Tlingit women traveled to the Capitol to fight for and protect their traditional territory, communities, and the global climate. We were thankful to partner with Earthjustice and participated in 16 meetings, including the Alaska Delegation, Congressional committee staff, USDA, and the Forest Service, to address current attacks on forest protections. The delegation resulted in raising further understanding for the importance of the Roadless Rule and of the complexity of Indigenous sovereignty in Alaska. Following the WECAN Indigenous Women's Tongass Delegation, two Congress members, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Representative Ruben Gallego (D-NM) introduced The Roadless Area Conservation Act, on May 2nd, 2019, which aims to prevent logging and destructive road-building in the Tongass National Forest. Here is a link to a video from this Delegation.

In November 2019, we facilitated a second WECAN Indigenous Women's Tongass Delegation. Along with other allied organizations, we traveled to Washington D.C. in response to the US Forest Service publishing of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Roadless Rule exemption in the Tongass. The Delegation met with members of Congress, committee staff, and the Forest Service, and also spoke at a congressional reception, where they met with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who co-introduced The Roadless Area Conservation Act in May 2019, and the Delegation also rallied and spoke alongside Jane Fonda during #FireDrillFridays.

Alongside our advocacy work and that of our colleagues, WECAN was instrumental in securing a public hearing in Washington D.C. held by the House Natural Resources Committee, where our colleagues spoke to congressional members on the national importance of protecting the Tongass. 

The Delegation also contributed heavily in manifesting, and submitting questions and comments during a Roadless Rule public meeting held by the Forest Service in Washington DC, and engaging a public audience in taking action to protect the Tongass by commenting on the DEIS. Please see the video here.

In just two days, on 12 August 2020, members of our third Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation will meet with legislators virtually to continue advocating for the protection of the Tongass in anticipation of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which is set to be disseminated sometime this year by the United States Forest Service. The Delegation is asking legislators to endorse the new Roadless Area Conservation Act, which would help stop the current attacks on forest protections, the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian ancestral homelands, and the global climate.

Melissa Lyttle

WECAN International Indigenous Women's Tongass Delegation members meet with Jim Hubbard, the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, who will supervise the Forest Service at the USDA, March 2019