email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTongass National Forest
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People joke about tree huggers, but no one laughs when old-growth woodlands are described as cathedral forests. We stand in awe amid columns that soar toward the light. The air takes on weight. It feels preternaturally close and still, yet behind the silence, is alive with faint rustlings, as in the moments before a hymn begins. I wondered whether groves of grand trees didn't in fact inspire the design of humanity's first temples and later edifices: the architecture of praise.

Toward dusk, my companions started stringing up tarps in the downpour with rapid, silent teamwork. I went looking for a place to pitch my tent that wasn't near a bear path. Impossible. When I turned back, I saw a dome tent glowing from the light of laptop computer screens. Wires and add-ons claimed half the floor. And there in the middle were the Sen Boys, each with one foot planted in bushcraft, the other in geekdom. They were hard at work compiling data from the forest. Supported by the Sitka Conservation Society, they call their effort the Tongass Ground-Truthing Project.

A century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest. The majority of it is as untamed today as it was then. Nearly two dozen national monuments, preserves, and designated wilderness areas within the national forest guarantee that almost seven million acres (three million hectares) will stay that way. By contrast, half a million acres (200,000 hectares) have been logged. Timber sales pending under the latest management plan will increase the total to about 650,000 acres (260,000 hectares). National forests are supposed to provide for multiple uses, from recreation to industry. So what's the problem?

The basic truth that lies behind the Tongass controversy is threefold. First, big-tree old-growth forests flourish on less than 4 percent of the land. Roughly one-third of the national forest isn't woodland at all but bare rock, glaciers, tundra, open muskeg, and slopes shorn by avalanches. Much of what remains is too high and cold or too soggy to support more than stunted or average-size trees. Most of the giant conifers rise on low-elevation sites with better drained, more fertile soils, notably karst (porous limestone) formations and gravelly riversides and floodplains. Second, those forests have been the primary targets for cutting from the start. Finally, nearly a third of Southeast Alaska's big trees have already been felled. Forests come back, of course. But by the measure of a human life span, conifers hundreds of years high and wide are not really renewable resources, and extracting them is more akin to mining.

Even before the 1920s, big trees had become scarce in stretches where independent hand-loggers had cherry-picked shoreline forests. Alaska officials tried to lure larger timber outfits from the south. But operating so far from ready markets looked like a money-loser, and the companies stayed home. Then, shortly after World War II, the federal government stepped in with an extraordinary incentive: a guaranteed 50-year supply of national forest timber at token prices to investors willing to build pulp mills.

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