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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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"Under the latest Tongass guidelines, clear-cuts are supposed to be restricted in size," Carstensen said. "But as soon as the trees growing back average five feet tall, it's legal to clear-cut the area next door, and so on. It's a prescription for what we call creeping mega-cuts. They lead to huge tracts of closed-canopy second-growth."

Nobody's cheating here: maybe fudging some, but mostly trying to keep to the management plan. Forest Service officials I spoke with were open about seeking ways to improve the plan. The agency has repeatedly put out calls for suggestions from the public. Representatives expected to hear the usual requests to close a particular road, save a special mountainside, or protect the rare lily-nosed wangdoodle.

But the computer age has changed the game. Given the latest software and high-speed Internet access to websites with technical reports and satellite maps, ordinary citizens can have almost as much data at their fingertips as agency specialists. Information equality: It is a wonderfully democratic trend, and it is shifting the emphasis in resource debates from emotions toward facts. I doubt anyone envisioned public input as comprehensive as the Sen Boys' Ground-Truthing Project.

The Alaska office of the National Audubon Society joined with the Nature Conservancy to take the Forest Service request further. Audubon Alaska's senior scientist, John Schoen, explained the latest analysis of Tongass landscapes.

First, Schoen and the Conservancy's Dave Albert subdivided the region into biogeographic provinces and the watershed units (used by Forest Service planners) within them. They overlaid physical factors such as soil type, vegetation, and elevation with habitat quality maps for grizzly and black bears, wintering black-tailed deer, nesting marbled murrelets, five species of Pacific salmon, and steelhead trout. Then they added the distribution of big trees and estuaries.

Each of these factors is an indicator of productive habitat. The more they overlap, the richer that area is ecologically. To rank the multitude of areas, Schoen and Albert turned to a potent computer program called Marxan. At its digital heart is an algorithm designed to solve a problem, arriving at the optimal solution by comparing tens of millions of alternative solutions. Gazillions of calculations later, the men held in their hands a map of the Tongass Forest's life-support systems, watershed by watershed, highlighting what Schoen termed "the best of the best."

From Tenakee Inlet on the east side of Chichagof Island, Schoen and I explored a series of drainages by skiff and rubber boots to field-check the results. This was where Marxan met the mud. We slogged up estuaries rank with grizzly droppings and salmon remains beneath scudding gulls, eagles, and mists. We'd already passed one grizzly swimming half a mile (one kilometer) from land. There were seven more among the shoreline grasses. Once deep in the woods, Schoen showed me trees the bears had marked with claws and teeth, and yellow cedars they had stripped bark from to get at the tasty cambium layer underneath.

John Schoen knows his bears. In his previous job as an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, he radio-collared grizzlies and learned how closely their seasonal activities were linked to productive old-growth. Earlier, he had ruffled a lot of Forest Service uniforms with his studies of black-tailed deer habitat use. The prevailing view was that logging benefited deer by opening up those old falling-down-and-going-to-waste forests. Schoen and colleagues Charlie Wallmo and Matt Kirchhoff showed deer using old-growth five times more often than cut-over stands, a Tongass truth the timber industry was not tickled to hear.

Audubon Alaska proposes that the Forest Service set aside as off-limits the top 50 percent of undeveloped watersheds still open to logging to keep them as intact as possible. "National forest management has been commodity-driven," Schoen says. "The overriding goal was to 'get out the cut.' We're past that. Everybody is trying to figure out how to do a better job of managing all the values the Tongass has to offer. This is a world-class ecosystem. Its resources deserve world-class efforts to sustain them."

With so much of the American frontier in the rearview mirror, we begin to see more clearly that no forest has ever been just a repository of trees. Each is at once a vibrant structure, a community, the live scaffolding within which creation continues to unfold. That is the ultimate natural resource growing out there between Alaska's snow-bright summits and the sea.


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