At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the country’s largest national forest, roughly the size of West Virginia. Spanning about 80 percent of Southeast Alaska’s rugged panhandle, the “Inside Passage,” the Tongass is coastal temperate rain forest dominated by Sitka spruce, western hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar and western red cedar, and drenched by annual precipitation usually ranging four to 25 feet.
This extremely wet landscape of cool temperatures represents the largest remaining tract of temperate rain forest in the world. The Tongass covers a narrow strip of coastal mountains and rocky shoreline, punctuated by inlets and estuaries. The Tongass is characterized by thousands of forested islands, steep mountains, tidewater glaciers, alpine tundra, soggy muskegs, and abundant populations of fish and wildlife. The rain forest contains more than 40,000 miles of streams and 20,000 lakes and ponds, many of them filled with salmon, trout, char and other fish. Salmon and trout alone support billion-dollar commercial, sport, hatchery and personal-use fisheries, employing thousands of Southeast Alaskans.
The Tongass hosts the highest density of brown bears in North America as well as healthy numbers of animals as diverse as Bald eagles, Sitka black-tailed deer, humpback whales, porpoises, seals, sea otters, wolves, sandhill cranes, hummingbirds and many other species. Admiralty Island – also called Kootznoowoo or “Fortress of the Bears” in Tlingit– is home to more brown bears than all of those in the Lower 48 combined.
In addition to being home to the state capital, the Tongass is also a world-class tourist destination for cruise ships and independent travelers. In 2010, 1.26 million passengers arrived in Juneau by airplane, cruise ship, or ferry, according to the Juneau Economic Development Council.