email a friend iconprinter friendly iconTongass National Forest
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Giveaways of public resources don't get more blatant. However, the Tongass forests seemed vast enough to meet any demand. Neither U.S. Forest Service technicians nor anyone else had yet inventoried the terrain to see how much of it actually grew big trees. Alaska still had the quasi-colonial status of a U.S. territory (it wouldn't become a state until 1959), and ecology was still an unfamiliar word. So why not harvest a heap of wood and set the boondocks up north on the path to development, especially since commercial logging, unlike fishing, held out the promise of jobs year-round?

One objection was to the federal costs of managing the timber sales and building road systems through rough-and-tumble backcountry to reach the trees—tens of millions of dollars annually, coming out of the pockets of U.S. taxpayers and padding company profits. But this subsidy was framed by a concern all too familiar today: national security. With Japan's wartime invasion of the Aleutian Islands fresh in mind, Congress wanted more Americans in Alaska. Moreover, the Cold War had begun, and strategists feared that Japan, struggling to rebuild, might turn to the Soviet Union for timber from Siberia.

An American corporation began operating the first huge pulp mill in 1954 near the fishing town of Ketchikan. A second was built soon after in Sitka by a Japanese consortium. Alaska's biggest industrial facilities in the era before North Slope oil, each hired some 500 people at relatively high wages. Many more were employed as sawyers, bulldozer operators, and drivers to keep an annual volume of 200 to 600 million board feet (470,000 to 1.4 million cubic meters) of timber (about 20,000 to 60,000 logging truckloads) flowing to the mills. There, the straight trunks of big hemlocks and the dense-grained, incredibly strong wood of Sitka spruce, many of the spruce trees born two or three centuries before Europeans knew the New World existed, were shredded and soaked in chemical brews—pulped. The pulp was shipped off to make rayon, cellophane, newspaper, and absorbent filling for disposable diapers.

Those who oppose wildland conservation sometimes say, "You can't eat the scenery." Ironically, we all ended up making meals out of old-growth Tongass woodlands: A separate milling process yielded a hemlock-and-spruce-fiber mash that qualified as edible pulp, a common additive in ice cream, jellies, and other processed foods. As the patterns of road webs and clear-cuts spread, voices of protest began to be raised.

Perhaps the greatest worry was not over the majestic trees themselves but over wildlife in the wake of logging. Commercial fishing was still Southeast Alaska's most important industry. Sportfishing and hunting also brought in a good deal of revenue, while both native and white residents depended upon fish and game for subsistence. Grizzlies and black bears favor old-growth stands much of the year. After the bears go to sleep, the canopy of branches keeps heavy snowfalls from burying winter forage vital to black-tailed deer, a type of mule deer adapted to coastal rain forest.

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