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Tongass National Forest
JULY 2007
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Tongass National Forest
By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photographs by Melissa Farlow

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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.

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.

Blacktails in turn are the mainstay of the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a smaller, darker subspecies of the gray wolf. During the past decade, researchers have learned that some packs spend a surprising amount of time catching salmon, too. Undisturbed watersheds favor strong spawning runs: The towering shade keeps streams cool, fallen trunks slow down currents and create pools, woodland nutrients fertilize the food chain that young fish rely upon. Closing the circle, generations of returning salmon help grow those very trees over time as fish-eating wolves, bears, eagles, gulls, and other animals spread around carcasses and excrement, all loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus from the ocean realm. It's like sprinkling Mrs. Nature's Supergro Mix onto a garden bed.

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