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Tongass National Forest
JULY 2007
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Tongass National Forest - National Geographic Magazine
By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photographs by Melissa Farlow
Lumber mills still harvest old-growth trees in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. Conservationists are fighting to stop the saws.

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.

Rising fast from salty coves to blue ice and black crags, here's a continent edgescape to swell the soul and humble the ego. Storm waves funneling up Stephens Passage can make an aluminum skiff feel awfully small, too, as I realized the day I first set out in June. My traveling companions were Richard Carstensen, from Juneau, and Bob Christensen, who lives on a lonesome island in Icy Strait. I called them the Sen Boys for short. Both are naturalists and experts at interpreting how the lay of the land shapes plant and animal communities. They read the sea well, too, and decided to run for a sheltered inlet.

At anchor with the engine off, we could hear how hard the rain was pelting the roof. Anyone else might have lingered in the boat's little cabin. The Sen Boys hurried out to hike. Anyone else might have chosen the beach and grassy estuary. The Sen Boys headed straight for the drooping, tangled murk beneath giant Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and cedar. They're rain forest guys, and we were on a voyage of discovery through an American frontier.

A high-tech voyage: The Sen Boys' hats had pockets sewn on to hold GPS (global positioning system) devices that pinpointed their locations from satellite signals and sent the data wirelessly to PDAs (personal digital assistants) in waterproof cases on their belts. The PDA screens displayed maps that automatically adjusted to match their whereabouts as they moved. By tapping the screens they could call up map overlays showing plant communities, wildlife habitat quality, geology, and 3-D topography. Their goal was to evaluate forest resources, focusing especially on sites scheduled to be cut.

Carstensen pointed out key plants as he walked. He nibbled the tastier greens. He dropped to his belly to examine obscure mosses and rattled off their Latin names. Petal by frond, he was assembling a portrait of the habitat in his mind. Where I saw the forest floor take an abrupt rise, he saw a former shoreline uplifted since the glaciers began to retreat, relieving the land of their weight—a phenomenon called glacial rebound. It is ongoing. The Tongass stands a smidgen higher by the hour.

Meanwhile Christensen raced ahead, talking into a voice-recording digital still camera. He looked for animal trails and droppings, counted them, mapped them, fingered old bones and snagged hair, and photographed the colossal conifers. He told me that both yellow cedars and western red cedars live at least a thousand years, then led the way to spruces he judged to be about 700 years old. Their trunks were so stout the three of us joining hands couldn't have encircled one.

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.

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