A strange, soft storm of white flakes is floating out of the summer sky, drifting past tall mountainside evergreens onto the nets of golden lichens hung from their boughs, onto the bushes colored by salmonberries and blueberries, onto the bear-tracked shores. This is not an unseasonal snow squall, not a flurry of wind-borne seeds. It's a fall of molted feathers from bald eagles converging on the waterways by the hundreds, bright heads and tails gleaming like beacons all along the dark woodland slopes. A high tide of flesh surges inland from the sea: Every river, every stream, quivers with salmon thrashing upcurrent to spawn like rapids running in reverse. If any more flowing juices and beating hearts crowded in here, the place might start moving around on its own.
Big trees, big birds, big fish, big bears, immense peaks wrapped in great glaciers that break off into bays where great whales spout: This is Southeast Alaska, the state's panhandle. It separates northern British Columbia from the open Pacific with a chain of misty, fjord-footed mountains and a jigsaw puzzle of more than a thousand islands. Known as the Alexander Archipelago, the islands help explain how a region less than 500 miles (800 kilometers) long can have 18,000 miles (29,000 kilometers) of shoreline (almost all wild, whereas the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in the contiguous states is 30 miles (50 kilometers), more than 10,000 estuaries, and 13,750 river miles (22,130 kilometers) that host oceangoing fish. About 5 percent of Southeast Alaska is owned by native tribes or the state. Another 12.5 percent makes up Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. All the rest—16.8 million acres (6.8 million hectares)—is the Tongass National Forest.
Three times the size of the next largest U.S. national forest, the Tongass could hardly be further from most citizens' everyday lives. Yet logging on part of this expanse has fueled decades of acrimony, lawsuits, even intervention by Congress. The controversy—and whatever the outcome may be—has turned the remote Tongass into a central test of how Americans want to manage living resources on public lands.
National forest? National rain forest is more accurate. Make that old-growth temperate rain forest, an exceptionally rich ecosystem that holds more organic matter—more biomass—per acre than any other, including tropical jungles. And that's not counting the equally lush forests of seaweed added to Tongass shores whenever the tide goes out. Temperate rain forest flourished from Alaska to northern California and in nations from Norway to Chile. Much has fallen to the ax and saw. In the lower 48 states, 96 percent of old-growth forest of all types has been cut down. The Tongass now represents not only the greatest remaining reserve of huge trees in the U.S., but also nearly one-third of the old-growth temperate rain forest left in the world.