Friday, June 22, 2007

The Truth About Tongass

by Douglas H. Chadwick
National Geographic
July 2007 Issue

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

© 2007 National Geographic Society

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