The Stream, February 1, 2023: US Government Restores Protections for Alaska’s Tongass Forest

The Tigris River leaves a green wake in its course through Iraq. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue


  • Israel, via its network of desalination plants, pumping stations, and giant pipes, is refilling and maintaining the once-shrinking Sea of Galilee. 
  • Millions of acres of Alaska’s Tongass forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, will once again be federally protected from road-building and timber harvests.
  • Azerbaijan filed suit in international court, claiming that Armenia, over decades of wartime occupation, destroyed biodiversity, ecology, and farmland in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • Despite decades of forewarning, the over-abundance of paddy, a water-intensive crop, has pushed groundwater resources to the brink in India’s Punjab state.

Drought, dams, and waterway diversions are overwhelming a recovering region of marshes, lakes, and river basins in southern Iraq

“The situation in the marshes now is worse than when Saddam was trying to destroy them.” — Dr. Hayder A. Al Thamiry, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Baghdad.

Yale Environment 360 reports that the Mesopotamian marshes, a UNESCO World Heritage site once drained and bombed by Saddam Hussein, are experiencing historic setbacks to their recent environmental recovery. 

As little as three years ago, the ecosystem was thriving again as one of southern Iraq’s most vibrant cultural, agricultural, and biodiversity hotspots. The marshlands, Yale reports, were home to 22 endangered species and 66 at-risk birds. Crops that were grown in ancient Mesopotamia — barley, pomegranates, and wheat — were still harvested. But a four-year long drought, coupled with upstream dams and diversions, has left the soil dry and riverbeds vulnerable to pollution. 

Mismanaged water structure and climate change — Iraq is the fifth-most vulnerable country to its impacts — compound the situation, Yale reports. Farmers in the region are being forced to leave for crowded urban centers, setting the stage for increasing food prices.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

The nearly 17 million acres of sprawling conifers, montane wildlife, fjords and waterways known as Tongass National Forest were granted federal protections this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which reintroduced road-building and timber harvest bans on 9.37 million acres of the refuge often called North America’s “lungs.” 

The world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, the Tongass — an island archipelago stretching thousands of miles across southeastern Alaska — stores a significant percent of the total carbon in all of America’s forests. The land is also the ancestral home of many Indigenous Alaskan communities, including but not only for the Kake, Eyak, Tlingit, and Haida tribes. The latter two praised the government’s decision in a recent press release

Endangered fish including steelhead trout and salmon live in the region’s estuaries, streams, rivers, and lakes. And freshwater itself — tons of it, frozen as glaciers and ice caps on the archipelago — is preciously preserved. 

The USDA’s decision is a reversal of a reversal. In 2001, the Clinton administration enacted the Roadless Rule, which banned road-building and timber harvesting in certain forested areas, including much of the Tongass. In 2020, the Trump administration announced the policy’s reversal. 

Many of Alaska’s Republican politicians, citing the state’s need for resources and a lack of federal investment in the economy, voiced their displeasure for the reinstatement, Anchorage Daily News reports. At the same time, tribes and environmentalists celebrated the announcement. 

But as Grist reports, both this week and last March, the reinstated policy is no cure-all. Even after 2001, federal land swaps have permitted the transfer of thousands of acres of the Tongass to companies with clear-cutting and logging interests. According to Grist, Congress still has the power to approve these exchanges. 

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers

200 million

Cubic meters of water that Israel will supply to Jordan annually, in exchange for 600 megawatts of solar power capacity. The deal, announced in November, is made possible for Israel thanks to its nationwide network of desalination plants — which convert Mediterranean seawater into freshwater — and the pumping stations and pipes that carry the resource to the once-shrinking Sea of Galilee and major nearby cities. Reuters reports that a new line, expected to finish construction in 2026, will carry water to Beit Shean, an Israeli city near the Jordanian border, less than 100 miles from Amman, Jordan’s capital. 


Percent of the total agricultural area in India’s Punjab state dedicated to the growing of paddy, which requires 5,000 liters of water per kilogram of rice, Mongabay reports. The widespread, decades-long farming of the water-intensive crop has depleted groundwater in Punjab, which extracts the most groundwater of any Indian state. Despite its adverse effect on soil and the state’s ecosystems, paddy sells well and is cheap to farm because irrigation water is subsidized. Still, according to Mongabay, efforts to diversify crop production and enable healthier land use practices remain underway.

On the Radar

An international court will decide if Armenia will pay reparations to Azerbaijan, which sued its neighbor for “appalling destruction” and pollution of waterways, forests, soils, and wildlife habitat in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has been disputed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s government said that Armenia’s mining and deforestation has irreversibly damaged the region’s natural waterways. According to The Guardian, a UN report “found serious damage to valuable farmland and water-management systems,” including the impact of land mines on water quality. “If Azerbaijan wins, it will set a precedent for putting an economic value on biodiversity and environmental destruction,” The Guardian reports

More Water News

Freshwater Stingrays: Two colorful species of Amazon stingrays, often bought and sold in the ornamental fish trade, have been granted heightened legal protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), The Revelator reports.

Bog Bodies: The first comprehensive study of bog bodies — ancient human remains, naturally mummified in peat- and wetlands in northern Europe — reveals the history of these early communities and reinforces the ecological importance of bog ecosystems, the New York Times reports

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