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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.