“Road to Ruin” upends the expectations that federal laws such as the Roadless Rule, literally passed to protect our nation’s forests, are working. This nearly year-long investigation reveals a shell game in which Congress approves land transfers between the National Forest Service and private entities, in some cases trading tracts of old-growth forest for land that had already been clear-cut in order to buoy the region’s dying timber industry and degrade one of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
Road to Ruin was a truly collaborative project, published in partnership with Grist, CoastAlaska (a collection of public radio stations), and Earthrise Media. It was also later republished by the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. The story attracted readers across the United States, from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to communities in Alaska. It also won the 2022 Online News Association award for Feature, Small Newsroom.
Once Tongass land is transferred out of Forest Service jurisdiction through land swaps, the logging that follows theoretically occurs on private land, so much of the data we were interested in wasn’t FOIAable. Instead, we conducted most of our analysis from above. By overlaying land-transfer boundaries with the evolving boundaries of Roadless Rule protections — and a remote sensing dataset of forest loss from the past two decades — we were able to estimate the proportion of clear-cuts that occurred on transferred land. We also leveraged an Alaska state dataset of fish-bearing streams to understand in practice how federal versus private loggers behaved near these waterways. (Short answer: Private loggers are allowed to cut closer to water, and they do).
While Grist’s Clayton Aldern worked with Ed Boyda, managing partner at Earthrise Media, to translate these analyses into graphic assets, Grist Senior Editor Katherine Lanpher recruited journalists on the ground in southeast Alaska. Jacob Resneck, then-editor of the non-profit radio network CoastAlaska, began wading through state forestry reports and getting public officials (including Senator Lisa Murkowski) on the record. He also pulled in Eric Stone, news director for Ketchikan’s KRBD station, who was well positioned — geographically and editorially — to bring ground truth to our data reporting. Stone hopped on a ferry to Prince of Wales Island to talk to the people living in the path of the cuts.
By combining Stone’s reporting and photography with drone photography from a local pilot, Resneck’s public-records reporting, Boyda’s satellite analysis, and Grist’s editing, design, and visualization chops, our team was able to assemble a collaborative feature that pulled back the curtains on an otherwise innocuous policy mechanism with dire ramifications.
Context about the project:
You could see the destruction from space. Ed Boyda, a managing partner at Earthrise Media, was scoping satellite images for another project when he saw the clearcuts of old growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — huge ravaged holes in the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
He knew cuts that large had to be legal — how else would you get away with it? — but he couldn’t square it with protections like the Roadless Rule, which the Biden administration had recently reinstated. He also knew it was a story, so he turned to Grist. And a collaboration that stretched from Alaska to Norway, where Boyda is located, was born.
If you’re not familiar with the Tongass, imagine vast swathes of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red and yellow cedar, some towering as high as 200 feet. Two million people visit each year. The Tongass is also known as a vital source for sequestering carbon; it holds 44 percent of all the carbon stored in American forests. And because wildfire is rare in this part of the world, the Tongass isn’t just a carbon sink, it’s a steady one, vital to the fight against climate change.
Grist senior data reporter Clayton Aldern worked with Earthrise’s raw imagery and analysis, transforming them into charts, annotated maps, and scrollytelling graphics, Senior editor Katherine Lanpher recruited journalists on the ground in Alaska, netting public radio reporters Jacob Resneck and Eric Stone.
Resneck, the editor of CoastAlaska, a non-profit servicing public radio stations in Southeast Alaska, had logged nearly five years reporting there. He knew how to pester officials in Juneau, wade through state forestry data reports, and which Indigenous leaders would talk for the record. Stone, the news director for KRBD in Ketchikan, traveled to Prince of Wales Island and talked to the people affected most immediately by the cuts: the people who rely on Tongass to provide their food, such as deer and salmon. Destroy the forest, you destroy the habitat and the way residents in rural Alaska put food on the table.
The folks Stone talked to aren’t anti-logging; they just want responsible logging. As one told Stone, “You think about what a victory everybody was celebrating about the Roadless Rule coming back. But it really means nothing if there’s a back door.”
Exposing that “back door” took a village of nearly a dozen staffers from Grist, Boyda from Earthrise, and the journalists from CoastAlaska, to package a 4,000-word story with data analysis, maps, interactives, drone and still photography. It took, in other words, a true collaboration.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
The Tongass story offers a tangible example of a data story hidden in plain sight. Were it not for a close look at pre-existing satellite imagery, we wouldn’t have ever seen the initial clear-cuts that ultimately formed the basis of the piece. Similarly, even with visual evidence of clear-cut logging in hand, establishing any flavor of causality required merging a series of spatiotemporal datasets describing land-transfer boundaries, conservation policies, and forest loss — and then analyzing the resulting data. Again, though, the datasets in question all stemmed from public sources. We think the piece functions as a reminder that evidence of policy loopholes doesn’t always require records requests and/or proprietary datasets.
We also believe the collaboration — between a national outlet, a radio coalition, a local outlet, a drone photographer, and a geospatial design firm — exemplifies the possibilities of bringing together diverse (and global) talents in journalism. No single party to the collaboration could have produced this investigation on its own.