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Tongass National Forest
JULY 2007
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Multimedia: Saving Tongass

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

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Forest economists have different ways of describing such habitats. "Overmature" is one. "Decadent," and "stagnating" are popular. The favorite is still "falling down and going to waste." All imply that where we don't harvest a forest to stimulate a new round of growth, the system lingers past its prime and decays. Well, they have a point, but only from the standpoint of maximum timber production. In terms of the maximum production of life, they are not seeing the forest for the trees.

Ground littered with broken branches and the trunks of titans that crashed to earth, creating openings above; all those mulches and mushrooms and composting tree tissues and burrowing, wriggling, scavenging little animal forms—these are signs of vitality in a woodland. The older the forest, the more complex its structure and ecological functions, and the wider the array of niches for flora and fauna. From lichens and liverworts to millipedes and mink, the richest assortment of life-forms in the rain forest ecosystem is housed within old-growth stands. They are the countryside's hot spots of bio-diversity. Antiquity is their prime.

One cure for age discrimination against elderly habitat is to hike through what replaces it after logging. Rain forests erupt with vegetation; it's their specialty. In clear-cuts, the result is a barricade of flexible shrub stems, spruce sapling needles, and sharper thorns. When surveying clear-cuts for signs of wildlife, the Sen Boys jokingly rated each bushwhack on a misery index from one to ten.

By four, you're in an obstacle course where forward progress requires using your hands as much as your feet. Feet rarely touch the ground after six. They are either searching for balance atop springy branches or caught in—well, difficult to say, because you can't see your feet through the leaves. Jungle-gymming up a mountainside where the branches all point downhill counts as an eight. One step forward, two stumbles back. When you grab for something to stop your slide, it's too often Oplopanax horridum—devil's club, the thorniest plant around.

"This has got to be a nine," I said while we fought our way up a thick, slick, spiked slope in a drizzle.

"Nope," Christensen called over. "Nine is way worse."

"What's a nine, then?"

"A nine is when it's raining hard and the bugs are really bad."

Deer, moose, and bears don't find the going easy in logged-over acreage either, but they have a bonanza of herbs and berries to choose from during the warm months. From late fall through spring, though, the food in clear-cuts is mostly out of reach beneath deep snow. Within 20 to 30 years, young trees will have taken over in such numbers that their branches interlace to form what foresters call a closed canopy stand. Little light gets through to lower levels. For a creature in search of a meal, the gloomy floor of a second-growth rain forest might as well be a desert for 50 to 100 years.

In 1968, the Forest Service awarded a contract to U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers, Inc., to cut trees for pulp on Admiralty Island. Long known to Tlingit tribes as Kootznoowoo, Fortress of the Bears, the million-acre (400,000 hectares) island supports one grizzly per square mile (three square kilometers). Public pressure mounted, and eventually, in 1978, the whole of Admiralty was set aside as a national monument.

Meanwhile, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had given the various native corporations across the state ownership of lands they selected from federal holdings. The total in Southeast Alaska came to more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares). Advised by timber economists, the native regional corporations and villages picked out mainly lands with productive big-tree forests. Then they began to level them and sell the raw logs to Asian markets, almost matching the pulp mills' rate of timber consumption.

Next came ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which established 104.3 million acres (42.2 million hectares) of parks, wildernesses, and other reserves throughout the largest state. In a trade-off engineered by Alaska's congressional delegation, the same bill mandated that the mills in the Tongass be supplied with a minimum of 450 million board feet (one million cubic meters) of timber and a 40-million-dollar annual subsidy—primarily to build roads to access timber.

People on both sides of the Tongass dispute get mad at the Forest Service. Maybe it is more to be pitied—as the recipient of conflicting marching orders. The new law essentially forced the agency to promote heavy logging even as other laws held it responsible for protecting wildlife and watersheds. Citizens outside the state were increasingly alarmed by the pace of rain forest destruction and annoyed that they were funding it.

While the Tongass was losing habitat and also far more money on the timber program than any other national forest, Southeast Alaska tourism was booming, beginning to compete with traditional industries for the lead role in the economy. The major draws were the region's natural beauty and spectacular wildlife. In 1990, Congress responded with the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which repealed the mandated timber supply and subsidy. Three years later, the Sitka mill closed. The Ketchikan mill closed its doors in 1997.


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