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Paul Alaback

Ecology and Politics in the Tongass National Forest

A Lecture and Discussion on the history of logging, politics, and forest ecology research on the Tongass since the Harriman Expedition.

After seeing clearcuts along the shore, and some towns heavily influenced by the timber industry, heading from Wrangell up towards the Wrangell Narrows near Petersburg, I gave a lecture/discussion on the history of logging and forest ecology research on the forests of Southeast Alaska. We started this afternoon at 2:30, immediately after sighting some whales, and after discussing last-minute decisions on where we can land to best see examples of old-growth forests, and examples of logging on this trip. But despite the harried nature of the trip thus far and this day, we had a lively discussion on this crucial and controversial issue.

First I asked expedition members to visualize the archtypical old growth forest on the Tongass. What does it look like? How big are the trees? How uniform is it? And most critically what makes this forest unique or different from other forests in the country with which people are most familiar? Quickly we honed in on the idea that what makes these forests special is that they are rainforests, that is they grow in a uniquely wet and cold environment, rich and mossy, with occasional large spruce or cedar trees. The idea was to think about what did Berhard Fernow, the forest ecologist on the 1899 expedition see and observe. The forests are patchy because of extremely variable geology and soils and excessive moisture which leads to more peatbog and alpine tundra than forest along this section of the coast.

This followed with Fernow's and Gannet's predictions published in the Harriman journals as to the development of a timber industry in Southeast Alaska. The predictions were simply this: While large trees do occasionally occur on the Alaska coast, that the tree species and their condition provides only marginally commercially valuable lumber or pulp. The then mostly intact forests of Puget Sound in Washington provide a fabulous wealth of timber resources with much greater economic value and that was much easier to extract than anything in Alaska. So they predicted that the coastal forests were unlikely to ever provide the foundation for a sustainable timber industry since they were inferior in value to the Pacific Northwest, were distant from market, and they occurred in mostly inaccessible and difficult terrain.

I then provided a brief highlight of what has happened to the forests of Southeast Alaska since the past expedition. At the turn of the century, wood was used primarily for canneries (docks, fish traps, boxes for shipping salmon), and local home construction. By the mid 1920's B. Frank Heintzlman offered an alternative vision of the timber industry for Southeast Alaska. He was successful in promoting this vision, so much so that he became the territorial governor of Alaska. The vision was that if timber was given cheaply in a large long-term contract, companies could be convinced to make the considerable investment required to build pulp mills and provide local employment. By allocating virtually all of the forests in Southeast Alaska to logging, a permanent population of 50,000 could be supported. By the late 1950's, three large contracts were awarded and two large pulp mills were built, and Alaska was proceeding towards this vision. Science at the time supported this vision, finding forest regrowth excellent and no obvious sign that logging would affect fisheries. The large government subsidy required to establish the industry was justified in terms of the strategic importance of a permanent population in Alaska, the value of contributing to post-World War II reconstruction, and the desirability of utilizing a large reservoir of timber resources.

In the 1970s and 1980s the Tongass was recognized increasingly as a tourist destination, as a valuable example of temperate rainforest, and its functioning as an ecosystem distinct from all others in the rest of the United States emerged. The combination of increased scientific understanding, greater public awareness, and changes in public expectations or values of forests and forest landscapes resulted in a shifting view of how much logging should occur on the Tongass. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) established over 5 million acres of wilderness, but also mandated elevated logging targets (450 million board feet per year) and also mandated $40 million allocation to the Forest Service exempt from normal Congressional review. This led to increasingly rapid logging, more detailed scientific studies, and increasing calls for an end to subsidized logging on the Tongass. Logging on Native corporation lands contributed to the boom in logging in the 1980s and 1990s, which combined with Tongass logging equaled nearly 1 billion board feet per year in 1989 and 1990. The 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act in many ways reversed the effects of the amendment to the 1980 ANILCA act, and placed in protection an additional million acres of prime old growth rainforest more for protecting wilderness, wildlife and fisheries resources than scenic vistas.

One critical insight that developed over these decades was the recognition of the forests of the Tongass as temperate rainforest ecosystems. I explained this as being carefully tied to the unique climate, and natural disturbances that affect the structure and wildlife habitat of these forests. In contrast to most forests in the lower 48 these rainforests are not destroyed by catastrophic fires, floods or similar events. They are maintained by windstorms that frequently knock down small patches of trees, but allow for the persistence of a complex old growth forest. This disturbance helps recycle nutrients, make the forest more variable and patchy, and stimulates regeneration of forest trees. The point is that in this forest renewal and regrowth and health are maintained by these mostly small-scale disturbances. Logging by contrast, while stimulating tree growth and regeneration, creates a dense and more homogeneous forest that quickly becomes of limited value to wildlife as habitat. So logging degrades wildlife habitat for many critical species such as Sitka black-tailed deer, bald eagles, grizzly bears, flying squirrels and others. These considerations and the integration of scientists and scientific information in the new management plan for the Tongass in 1997 led to further restrictions in logging regulations and the reduction of the allowable cut to under 300 million board feet a year. Declining profitability of logging progressively less valuable forests combined with political and social changes led to the closing of both pulp mills by 1997.

So now, one century later we have gone from a vision of 90% or more of the commercial timber in Southeast Alaska being dedicated to clearcut logging to nearly 80% of commercial forest land being in some way protected from logging. The timber economy although quite significant at its peak in the 1970s - 1980s, ended up being quite transitory. So at the surface it appears Fernow and Gannet were quite incorrect in their assessments of the commercial value of timber in coastal Alaska. But I suggest that in many important ways their insights have been validated by the events of the past century. Clearly it is difficult to find a market for the relatively low quality timber on the Tongass, and it is extraordinarily expensive and difficult to access this patchily arranged timber resource. Were it not for a subsidy that at times reached as much as 50-80% there could not have been even a transitory large-scale timber economy in Southeast Alaska.

We then had a lively discussion in which expedition members raised many important details about the history of logging on the Tongass. What was the role of Native corporation logging the Tongass?, Why should there be any logging on the Tongass, why can't the forests simply be thinned to mitigate against wildlife habitat impacts? How about selective logging as an alternative? In my view, in reflecting on this history it is hard not to be optimistic as to what future possibilities may unfold before us. The world pulp market is steadily expanding. The world demand continues to exceed the supply. Wood is becoming more valuable. And the unique attributes of wood from Sitka spruce and Alaska yellow cedar in particular are continuing to be discovered. From guitars to airplanes and even spacecraft, special high-value uses exist for some trees in Southeast Alaska. With our increasing understanding of the complex interrelationships in these forests it is hard not to imagine that we should be able to eventually have the wisdom, skill and determination to develop a sustainable timber industry in Southeast Alaska, which can work in concert with fisheries, wildlife, recreation and other resources in this vast coastline.

Immediately after this discussion, many expedition members joined me on the wooden sun-deck where I was able to continue to answer questions and point out examples ecological patterns, and examples of logging activities that were clearly visible as the ship passed through the narrow Wrangell Narrows, just south of Petersburg. Many topics were covered, including the deep and complex interdependency of these coastal forests to salmon and other marine resources, and the amazing patchiness and complexity of this stunning landscape.


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