SEACC Remembers Donald Ross

Written by SEACC

October 12, 2022

Donald Ross, a long-time friend of SEACC, Tongass strongheart, and lifelong conservation leader and strategist passed away on May 14, 2022. After over 40 years of steadfastly working with a donor and dear friend to support our work to save the Tongass, I learned he was a great man with a big heart, clear vision, and a staunch love of Alaska. We miss him already. — Meredith

These thoughts and reminiscences were presented by Jim Stratton, former SEACC executive director from 1981 to 1984, Bart Koehler, SEACC board member and former executive director from 1984 to 1990 and 1995 to 1999, and Steve Kallick, board member and former SEACC attorney from 1985 to 1990.

The Genesis of the Tongass Timber Reform Act
The Group of 10 — heads of 10 major national environmental groups — came to Alaska for a tour in August 1986. In the wake of the Alaska Lands Act passage in 1980, they were interested in how the bill was being implemented and what challenges remained for protecting Alaska. Interest in the Tongass was very high.

Hosted by the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the meeting was funded by the Kendall Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund. So as a funder, Donald was along for the ride. Both Kendall and RFF were huge supporters of Alaska grassroots environmental groups in the first decade after the Alaska Lands Act was passed. Donald astutely recognized the opportunity we had to ensure millions of acres stayed protected, but only if the groups in Alaska remained strong. He remained committed to Alaska’s grassroots activism for decades.

Donald understood the need to amend the Lands Act to remove the Tongass’ 450 million board foot annual timber mandate.

When the Group of 10 arrived in Juneau, SEACC executive director Bart Koehler presented them with a detailed campaign plan for Congressional action to repeal the 450 mandate. Donald picked up a copy and read it on the flight home to New York. The following Monday, Donald called me at Alaska Conservation Foundation and asked if Bart could really pull off this campaign. “Of course he can,” was my reply, and that launched funding for the effort that resulted in the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) of 1990.

Donald made a commitment to ACF that RFF would provide funding for SEACC to lead the 450 reform effort and he would find other foundations to financially help. For the next five years, he did just that. — J.S.

On Losing a Dear, Longstanding Big-Hearted Guardian Angel
I first met Donald back in 1985. He was working as the “point man” for the Rockefeller Family Fund when the Group of 10 (see left) went on a whirlwind fact-finding tour of Alaska. By the time they landed in Juneau, everyone was exhausted and went to their hotel rooms to collapse. All except Donald, who was chomping at the bit to get airborne and see our nation’s largest, wettest, national forest on the next day’s overflight of the Tongass. Donald bounced around the plane from window to window to get the best views and learn firsthand the daunting challenges faced by SEACC and its supporters.

Out of that high-ranking group of funders, Donald was the first to deliver a major grant to SEACC — a pivotal grant that allowed us to base two Alaskans full-time in Washington, D.C., and travel the U.S. presenting on the mismanagement of the Tongass. After years of debate in D.C., President George H.W. Bush signed the Tongass Timber Reform Act into law on November 28, 1990. The tide had turned.

Donald never wavered from his steadfast advocacy for funding SEACC’s underdog campaign to stop the liquidation of precious Tongass old-growth that the Forest Service was carrying out at breakneck speed. In short, Donald’s grants helped SEACC attract additional funder support to make the impossible possible.

Donald’s activist philanthropy went beyond the TTRA. His tangible legacy, after decades of finding money for underdog groups in Alaska and around the U.S., is the hundreds more wilderness areas and countless more National Conservation Areas and Special Management Areas protected by law — all amounting to tens of millions of acres permanently safeguarded from new roads and logging across the nation. 

I could go on and on about Donald, our guardian angel. — B.K

50-Year Contracts and Roadless
After Donald Ross helped set SEACC up to pass the TTRA in 1990, he continued his role as a quiet, behind-the-scenes defender of the forest and champion of SEACC. TTRA marked a turning point in the multi-generational battle for the Tongass. But it didn’t go far enough — leaving the 50-year pulp mill contracts in place and changing but not ending the logging mandate — and even before the ink was dry the timber industry began clawing back the concessions we’d fought so hard to win.

Donald never took his eye off the ball, however. Just a couple of years later he helped advise a group of donors, working with Jim Stratton and John Sisk, to create the Alaska Rainforest Campaign and help SEACC end the 50-year contracts and beat back 17 Congressional proposals to roll back TTRA.

But Donald still wasn’t done. In 1998, he quietly helped convince The Pew Charitable Trusts to organize and fund a nationwide campaign to protect all the 58.5 million acres of remaining Forest Service roadless areas. The biggest benefit of that policy would be in Southeast Alaska, and Donald encouraged Pew and other environmental groups not to give up on including the Tongass in the final Roadless policy.

Even after that, Donald continued helping keep the Roadless Rule in place and assuring it protected the Tongass. He never wavered in his love for the forest, his trust in and support for SEACC, and his faith that Americans will always protect our national treasures if given the opportunity. Millions of acres of the Tongass still stand as a tribute to his good work. It’s our job now to honor that incredible legacy. — S.K.

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