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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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ON PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND, the most extensively roaded and chopped-over piece of the Tongass, a former logger and millwright, Bob Widmyer, looked around at the quiet village of Coffman Cove. He and his wife had been planning to retire after five more years at the Ketchikan mill. Instead, he said, "They decided they had to save all the trees and shut down the mill, and everybody here and in Ketchikan started to starve." The Widmyers ended up at a culinary arts school in Arizona. They were back in Alaska now, and he operated a commercial fishing boat. "I'm kinda bitter," he told me. "This is a damn rain forest. It was put here to log."

Some blamed environmental activists and the Timber Reform Act for throwing people out of work, but others argued that the mill closures had more to do with a sharp recession in Japan, a slumping world market for pulp, and Alaska's disadvantage in competing against countries with faster growing trees and less expensive pulp production methods. Ketchikan's mill was also facing serious air- and water-pollution fines.

The saga rumbled on. In 1999, undeveloped national forest lands across the U.S. were declared off-limits to commercial logging. In 2001, outgoing President Bill Clinton included nearly ten million Tongass acres (four million hectares). The exemption became known as the Roadless Rule. Incoming President George W. Bush rescinded it, giving authority over such decisions to individual states. Lawsuits followed. A federal judge issued a decision in 2006 stating that the Bush Administration was not justified in rolling back those protections for wildland resources.

Lawyers continue to pile on. But in 2003, the undersecretary of agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, Mark Rey, a former timber lobbyist, declared one forest's roadless areas open to timber management no matter how the issue was resolved nationally. That one was the Tongass. It seems to have become a symbol in a much larger contest of beliefs about what frontiers are for and what the truest measure of a nation's progress should be.

When the Sen Boys took off ground-truthing one rare, hot, blue-sky morning, I devoted myself to sea-truthing in a kayak instead. Kelp beds and their galaxies of star-shaped, whorled, gilled, and tentacled inhabitants are part of the Tongass experience too. Later, I paddled back to the island where our tents were and lay beneath a spruce 11 feet (three meters) across and 225 feet (68 meters) tall. Mosses and fallen bark and twigs were piled so deep at its base that the forest floor felt like a mattress. According to some experts, more than 90 percent of the giants among giants—trees exceeding ten feet (three meters) in diameter, "the big pumpkins" as sawyers say—are gone. It was a privilege to just hang out with one.

With only three modest-size mills and ten small ones scattered around the region today, the Tongass timber industry provides about 200 jobs—less than one percent of total employment in Southeast Alaska. The gargantuan cruise ships plying the waters hire nearly a thousand workers—on each vessel. In Ketchikan alone (city population 8,000), more than 800,000 visitors walk off cruise ship decks and into the stores every year, generating upwards of 120 million dollars in tourism revenue.

The Tongass National Forest itself has a staff of 600 to 700. In an average year, the agency spends some 30 million dollars overseeing timber programs. Many of the logging sales it puts up for bid have no takers. Others stay in limbo because of lawsuits filed by conservationists. For the approximately 50 million board feet (118,000 cubic meters) the Forest Service does manage to sell annually, it receives about $750,000. The deficit therefore comes to $29,250,000. Dividing that by 200 Tongass timber jobs, the government could pay each logger and mill worker $146,250 a year to stay home and let the rain forest be.

Not going to happen? Then what about shifting the focus to repairing streams and enhancing fisheries in some of the worst-hit sites? Or thinning closed-canopy forests to hasten tree growth where the land has already been altered? The Forest Service has been experimenting with these options and more for at least 25 years.

In the pulp mills' heyday, Larry Trumble worked as a scaler, gauging how many board feet logs contained. When I tracked him down near the town of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, he was working a one-man mill, carefully sawing thin plates from blocks of a six-foot-diameter (two meters) spruce. The tight, evenly spaced grain of old trees that grow slowly in shady settings is valued as veneer in Asia. It also makes ideal soundboards for such stringed instruments as guitars and pianos. Participating in a new Forest Service program called micro sales, Trumble is allowed to pick out a few standing dead or fallen trees and haul them from the forest to be transformed into music wood. "This is the same wood that the mills ground up for chips. Cutting it into regular two-by-fours like mills do today isn't value-added either. You should get a fortune from 50,000 board feet of this stuff."

Close to the island's town of Thorne Bay, Rick Cabe operates a mill that processes three-quarters of a million board feet (180 cubic meters) of timber a year. "We can't compete with mills in Canada that cut a million board feet a day for export," he told me. "We wanted to get into a high value-added operation. The lumber you see around the yard isn't that old, maybe 150 years, but it's beautiful wood."

Cabe and a crew of four selectively cut trees in timber sale units designed by the Forest Service specifically for small mills like this. They turn out long, straight-grained boards and also cut six-by-sixes rounded on one side to make log cabin kits tailored for Southeast Alaska's wet climate. The trick is to dry the wood well to prevent later settling and warping. Cabe does this in a kiln he operates for 50 cents a day. "It makes the whole operation pay off. This is a success story. Why don't more timber guys do it? It takes capital to start up." Another reason is that many small operators were driven out of business during the time the pulp mills reigned.

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