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Original Issue


In Alaska, as in the Lower 48, the U.S. Forest Service is turning the timberlands it is supposed to reserve and protect into mismanaged tree factories

Reat claw marks, the half-healed scars left by ancient glaciers, run from northwest to southeast across Chichagof Island, which is part of the forested archipelago that sprawls below Glacier Bay and Juneau along the Alaska Panhandle. One of the marks is a narrow, steep-walled slash that nearly cuts the island in half. For 25 miles, over northwest Chichagof, the glacial scar is a fjord called the Lisianski Inlet. Then, where a band of tougher rock resisted the grinding of the ice, this claw mark emerges from below sea level and continues for about six miles as a narrow, heavily wooded upland valley.

That upland valley is part of the huge Tongass National Forest, the last largely untouched rain forest in either of the world's temperate zones. It is a lovely, roadless place, a wilderness in all but official designation. The small, braided channels of the Lisianski River, which runs down the valley floor to the inlet, cut through stands of huge Sitka spruce, ancient trees six to eight feet in diameter near their base that top out at 160 to 175 feet. Stupendous numbers of pink salmon spawn in the Lisianski, which is one of the major producers of Southeast Alaska's $75 million annual salmon catch. So many Dolly Varden char live in this river that to catch a 15-incher on each of half a dozen consecutive casts is too commonplace to bother bragging about.

Enormous Alaska brown bears, outsized coastal grizzlies, rumble about this small valley, eating salmon and getting bigger. Bald eagles patrol the inlet. Sitka black-tailed deer hold conventions here, and for citizens of nearby Pelican (pop. 276)—commercial fishermen stretching their family food budgets through the lean months—a morning of hunting the Lisianski drainage is a trip to the meat market. Hunters in Southeast Alaska are permitted to take six deer a year, and somebody has estimated—maybe exaggerating, maybe not—that 30% of the red meat consumed there is Sitka black-tailed deer.

If you want to see this rare, small valley, don't lollygag. The odds are high that the best of it soon will be scraped bare again. This time the inexorable grinding force will not be a glacier but the Industrial Bank of Japan, with invaluable help from its loyal ally, the U.S. Forest Service.

Alaska is a state unlike any other, and its singularity means that environmental messes there seem exotic, not much related to the ones folks in the Lower 48 create. In the case of the Lisianski woodlands, some of the things that have gone sour, such as a pair of 50-year bargain-basement pulpwood contracts and the $2 value currently assigned to giant 400-year-old trees (more on these matters later), are as Alaskan as the humpback salmon. But the larger part of the blame in this case lies with the chronic malfeasance of the Forest Service, a bureaucratic coral colony that has long since stopped faithfully serving the forests, or even the timber industry. It seems committed to nothing except its own steady growth.

The Forest Service's proposed trashing of the Lisianski Inlet is worth a hard look because it is representative of what is happening in the rest of the country: America's 156 national forests, an invaluable and irreplaceable resource covering 191 million acres, are being mismanaged as tree factories by the Forest Service, the huge and obstinate bureaucracy that is supposed to preserve them (see box, page 86).

Warning: Little that follows makes what is usually thought of as sense. The attack on the Lisianski woodlands and the rest of the Tongass is so hard to comprehend because it is not one of those assaults that's dim-witted from an environmental viewpoint but is drearily justifiable as a short-term dollars-and-cents proposition. No, the proposed wreckage of the Lisianski and the circumstances that surround it are both environmentally destructive and unfathomable from the perspective of straightforward, bottom-line greed. The Forest Service's record in Southeast Alaska and the damage it is still trying to do there are so bizarre that an observer draws back periodically and shakes his head to clear the fog. You don't have to be an environmentalist—just a taxpayer—to ask why the Forest Service is doing this. Where is the gain?

Those are good questions, better than any answers found in a year of traveling and reading and listening to foresters, sawmill operators and environmentalists. Committees in both houses of the U.S. Congress have also investigated the strange, wasteful behavior of the Forest Service in the Tongass. Their answers, too, are more peculiar than convincing. In any case—uh, just a minute....

This writer, who lives in New Hampshire, switches off his computer and picks up his work gloves. He is proceeding simultaneously with two tasks, the construction of this article and the splitting of eight cords of wood to heat his house. Whenever a paragraph seizes up, like the transmission of his old logging truck, he whacks at the woodpile with a splitting maul for half an hour or so, until the fashioning of English prose seems much the easier chore.

The writer works at all of his articles in this way and mentions it here only to establish that he knows firewood, two-by-fours, four-by-eight sheets of‚Öù-inch exterior grade plywood and the like all come from trees, but only if someone cuts down the trees. The writer has noticed that his city friends all think that his wood-splitting is worthy and noble, but they invariably wince when he fells a tree. These city friends are tree-huggers, which is exactly what the hard-hatted Tongass timber beasts, with their 36-inch chain saws, call the writer when he goes to Alaska.

O.K., that's another week's worth of BTUs split and stacked. Change to dry shirt. Where was I?

According to careful Forest Service estimates, 26 million board feet of lumber—almost all of it old-growth, high-volume Sitka spruce, although there is some mountain hemlock mixed in—may be cut in the Lisianski tract. That is 5.7% of the 450 million board feet from the Tongass that the Forest Service claims it is obligated by law to prepare and offer for sale each year, or about what might be felled in a week in the Tongass during the summer cutting season. The trees are giant, fine-grained patriarchs, many of which were mature before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Powerful environmental reasons exist for not cutting them. An untouched, old-growth forest is not merely a stand of trees with an animal population, but an enormously complex and delicate organism, consisting of trees, other plants, animals, water, sunlight, atmosphere and flows of thermal and chemical energy.

Wait a minute, thinks a man who knows tree-hugging when he sees it. Never mind that sentimental stuff about "fine-grained patriarchs." Let's hear about those 26 million board feet of Sitka spruce. That's prime timber, right?

It sure is, suitable for fine furniture, guitars and piano sounding boards.

So a lot of money is involved?

The answer is an emphatic yes-and-no. The spruce is prime, but not much of it will be used as high quality saw-logs. Almost all of it will be fed into chippers at the Alaska Pulp Co. mill in Sitka. The mill is owned by the Industrial Bank of Japan. Lest xenophobia be suspected, it should be noted that the Louisiana-Pacific Co., a true-blue American outfit, owns a second Alaskan pulp mill, in Ketchikan, into which Tongass old-growth timber is also fed. But by careful design, the territories of these mills do not overlap, and the Lisianski trees have been promised to the Japanese.

O.K., forget guitars and pianos. Aren't we still talking about big bucks?

Well, the problem is that the Sitka and Ketchikan mills were set up in the 1950s to turn out cellulose for rayon and cellophane. The Forest Service had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a timber exporting business going in Alaska. To lure wary capital to the frozen North, the service gave each mill owner its own sphere of influence and a 50-year sweetheart contract, guaranteeing fire-sale stump-age rates (the price of standing timber), with a lot of costs absorbed by the government.

In 1980 a poorly drafted federal bill, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), made the deal even cozier. ANILCA directed the Forest Service to give the two pulp-wood companies a total of $40 million a year in aid "or whatever sums are necessary" to achieve the timber supply goal. Today, the expenditure, which the service insists should not be called a subsidy, runs about $62 million per annum. Moreover, part of the ANILCA deal was that Congress agreed not to examine and approve these costs every year, as it does other federal expenditures. However....

How could there be a however?

What happened was that rayon and cellophane, hot items in the 1950s, turned out to be a wave of the past. Petrochemical fabrics and plastics have taken over. The Sitka mill has lost nearly $100 million over the last three years, or so its owners claim. That could be creative accounting, but the cellulose-based synthetics industry may indeed be dying. Unless, of course, the Chinese go for paper diapers in a big way.


Paper diapers are made out of cellulose, and Alaska's big market is the nations of the Pacific rim. Anyway, the two Alaskan pulp mills yelled poor mouth awhile ago, and the Forest Service dropped their stumpage price to about $2 per 1,000 board feet.

How many board feet in one of those big 400-year-old trees?

About a thousand, maybe two. On the average, the U.S. Treasury gets about $2 for an old-growth Tongass spruce—-about the same as the price of a DoveBar.

So clear-cutting the Lisianski stand will generate how much revenue for the federal government?

Assuming that the valley is nearly all spruce, about $65,000.

Well, that's something.

Not really. Before the Forest Service auctions a tract of national forest to be logged, it does a lot of surveying and mapping. It also builds such necessities as loading docks, roads and barracks. It may also throw in some nonnecessities. For example, in 1986, when the service completed a $6.4 million logging facility at Thorne Bay, on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island, it included a ball field covered with sod brought up by barge from Seattle. None of this is charged to the timber companies—in accordance with ANILCA's provisions—and if the loggers do any road building, they are reimbursed. In fact, the Forest Service builds more miles of road than any highway department in the U.S.

Sometimes, alas, the timber leases that the service offers at auction don't sell, though the government has spent all that money on construction. The taxpayers thus own a lot of roads in Southeast Alaska that lead to nowhere. And there's a nifty new barracks in Corner Bay on Chichagof Island. It has a weight room, cable TV....

I don't think I want to hear this.

That's perfectly understandable. Nobody uses the barracks, because the townspeople at nearby Teneke Springs went to court and stopped the building of a road from Corner Bay to their town—after the Forest Service had completed 11 miles of it.

In all, the service maps and builds roads in Southeast Alaskan forests good for 450 million board feet of cutting each year, even though these days only about half of that is sold when it is offered at auction. By last summer the Forest Service had a six-year backlog of unsold leases for mapped and road-ed timber tracts.

You've gotta be kidding.

Anyway, according to the Forest Service's own figures, the roads in difficult terrain like the Lisianski Inlet usually cost from $150,000 to $250,000 a mile. That seems low, considering the estimated 21 heavy-duty bridges that will have to be built in the complicated river-mouth area. But even using the Forest Service's figures, the nine winding miles of road the project requires would cost from $1.35 million to $2.25 million.

So the U.S. Treasury, by way of the Forest Service, pays the difference and loses money?

Always, and lots of it. In 1983 the service lost 91 cents on every dollar invested in Southeast Alaska—if invested is the right word. In '84 it lost 93 cents on each dollar. In '85 and '86, 99 cents.

Does the Forest Service do this badly in the rest of the country?

Not quite, but the government does lose $600 million a year on below-cost timber sales across the country.

And the timber companies don't share in any of these costs?

Of course not. Otherwise they would lose the money. In fact, because the Alaska Pulp Co. claims it has lost money over the last few years, it is suing the federal government for more than $80 million. Alaska Pulp wants to be reimbursed.

Now you're going to tell me there's an excuse.

What? Sorry, you've lost me.

There's always an excuse. You know, the good reason that makes all this craziness sensible.

Oh, sure. The Forest Service is very big on what it calls "community stability." What it means by that is jobs for loggers. Southeast Alaska used to have about 3,000 logging jobs, but now, in a sagging local pulp market, the number is down to 1,800 or so, despite the subsidies. The Forest Service provides—directly or indirectly—about 1,400 of those jobs, each of which, the Wilderness Society once figured, costs the taxpayers $36,000 a year. But that figure is probably low.

Most of these are five-month-a-year jobs, right?

Well, it snows quite a lot the rest of the time.

So with the same $36,000, you could send each lumberjack on a round-the-world cruise every year, American plan, or buy him a new pickup truck and a snowmobile.

Why not?

Wait a minute. Do these figures include the people the Forest Service itself employs?

No, they're extra. Between 600 and 700 Forest Service staffers are assigned to Southeast Alaska.

All working hard to lose 99 cents on every dollar the government puts up?

Not at all. They manage the forests and support the fragile economy of Southeast Alaska. Or so they say.

O.K., but if tree cutting is losing money, and the pulp mills can't make money even though they buy the trees for zilch, and if jobs are the only justification for the logging, then what we've got is a big social project, with one Forest Service social worker for every two lumberjacks. Does this make sense?

Apparently it does to someone. Steve Cowper, Alaska's Democratic governor, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, the state's U.S. senators, both Republicans, and Don Young, another Republican who is its U.S. representative, are all for the program.

Do I smell pork?

Whacking the Forest Service for fiscal wastefulness is so satisfying that it is easy to forget the harm its policies are doing to the environment. It seems certain that the agency is putting two prosperous, tax-paying Alaskan industries, fishing and tourism, at risk with a doomed effort to support the limping, artificially created cellulose-pulp industry. However, lost dollars can be replaced or done without; tourists can go elsewhere if the woodlands are befouled or game is too scarce; and fish can be found in other seas if Alaska's catch suffers too much from damage to spawning streams caused by logging and road construction projects. What won't be replaced, at least until the next glacial age has come and gone, is the Tongass National Forest.

The environmental argument over logging the Tongass whirls with numbers, beginning with the forest's 16.8 million acres, which make it three times the size of any other U.S. national forest. ANILCA set aside 5.4 million of those acres as wilderness. The timber industry makes much of its "sacrifice" in giving up those 5.4 million acres, especially now that other timber-related provisions of ANILCA are under fire. Bills pending in both houses of Congress would repeal provisions that require the Forest Service to spend $40 million annually to aid the two Tongass pulp plants and to prepare 450 million board feet of timber for sale each year. The bills would also reinstitute yearly congressional review of costs and appropriations. Other bills would undo the 50-year sweetheart logging contracts.

What is really being fought over in those legislative battles are not the 5.4 million acres of wilderness in the Tongass, or the remaining 11.4 million acres that are unprotected, but much smaller stretches of old-growth forest. Most of the Tongass is high rock and ice, spectacularly beautiful but not good for growing anything except lichens and mountain goats. The Forest Service estimates that only 3.1 million acres are suitable for timber harvest—that is, the trees there are large enough and abundant enough for logging.

But that doesn't mean these areas are accessible. What can be reached, even with cost-is-no-object road-building programs, is just a fraction of the 3.1 million acres. It is this fact that timber industry spokesmen refer to when they pooh-pooh the fears of what they always call "special-interest" environmentalists by saying that "15 million of the 17 million acres of the Tongass will never be logged."

The only trees of interest to pulp or sawlog operations are the old-growth giants in stands that produce at least 30,000 board feet per acre. Today, after some 30 years of logging, perhaps 640,000 of these acres are left, of which 486,000 are scheduled for timber harvesting. These enormous old trees shelter grizzlies, deer, pine marten and bald eagles. They shade the spawning beds of salmon. When they die, they topple across streams and create pools for trout.

To say that the animals need the forest is to oversimplify. The great trees and the small ones and mosses and fungi and blueberries and fish and mammals and birds and insects are the forest. The Tongass is many ecosystems fitting together in ways that wildlife biologists are only beginning to understand. But the big trees are the living bones.

A decade or so ago, the term "biological desert" was in vogue in forestry circles. It referred to a supposed condition in which the thick canopy of an old-growth forest shuts off sunlight, so that no smaller plants, and thus no herbivorous animals or carnivores that ate the herbivores, can survive. This notion fit the Forest Service's philosophy, which held that managed forests were good and that unmanaged ones were something close to sinful. Managed forests made better wood factories, so it was thought, because they could be harvested on a rotation schedule, which might be 100 years from seedling to sawlog.

A 100-year rotation is what the Forest Service wants to achieve for the Tongass. Agency planners don't have much use for old-growth forests because, by definition, they aren't managed. It is no accident that the Forest Service is a branch of the Department of Agriculture; woodlands sometimes seem to be regarded as not greatly different from fields of soybeans. Gifford Pinchot, who established the Forest Service in 1905, was a fervent utilitarian and a fervent adversary of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Pinchot believed that the natural world existed for man to use. And "use" did not mean holding a forest in reserve or letting the natural balances of flora and fauna work themselves out. Use meant thinning, reforesting, improving. It meant managing, which in turn meant hiring, devising projects and securing appropriations—the activities of a healthy, swelling bureaucracy.

The differences between managed and unmanaged woods become readily apparent on an hour's walk with Matt Kirchoff, a wildlife biologist for the State of Alaska. We are in a suburb of Juneau called Lemon Creek. Just beyond the last split-level is forest. It looks terrible. Fifteen years ago the forest was cut, and now it has gone back to alder, a scrubby tree that grows so densely that neither man nor deer can force passage through a thicket.

Our cut trail rises, and now we are in old growth that has never been logged. The trees rise 150 feet or more, but sunlight pours through holes in the canopy where 50 or 100 years ago old trees died and fell. Vegetation is everywhere in dozens of varieties, from the low green plants that Kirchoff points out as deer food, to great, hanging chunks of moss, to blood-letting devil's club, to spruce seedlings growing on the half-rotted fallen trunks of nurse trees. Clear water, trout habitat, winds its way down over sandy gravel, dark humus, water plants and a tangle of fallen trees.

Then, in the space of a few feet, we are in near darkness. This tract was clear-cut 45 years ago, and now even-age Sitka spruces have taken over. They are healthy enough, about 50 feet tall, and the biggest trunks are nine inches in diameter. But there is no trace of the alder that must have covered the clear-cut, nor of any other plant. Nothing but spruce needles is on the forest floor. I had taken snapshots in the old growth, but now there is no light for photographs.

And none, of course, to grow fodder. A section of this old clear-cut was thinned about 25 years ago, but the canopy has closed again. This is a biological desert, a one-species eco-vacuum. If the grove isn't touched, no understory will develop until the trees are 150 to 200 years old, when some will begin to die and let in light. According to one Forest Service manager, all the woods at Lemon Creek need is a second "precommercial thinning" to let in enough light for wildlife. This ignores the economic fact that the labor costs of even one thinning far exceed the market value of the trees, and the environmental reality that the complex, wildlife-nurturing understory of an old-growth stand would only have started to re-establish itself by the time the trees were logged.

Does it matter if the Tongass is turned into a tree factory?

At some point, the dwindling supply of old growth will seriously cut into wildlife populations. Those cuts will be permanent, because there is no way—short of waiting several hundred years—to create more old growth. In the meantime, logging and road-building operations put anything shootable in jeopardy. The Tongass has a lot of grizzlies, but not as many as it once had, because of kills necessary to protect life and property, and because of illegal kills by gun toters who like large, dangerous targets. Many Alaskans think that having fewer bears is just fine. Says Sitka mayor Dan Keck, "Logging hasn't hurt those damn bears a bit." But no one really knows because baseline population studies have never been done.

Eagles, sometimes called cannery buzzards by locals when they are twitting Sierra Clubbers, are protected by federal law. Moreover, regulations forbid logging within 330 feet of eagle nests, which are vast affairs built atop huge old shoreside trees. But the frontier mentality occasionally turns septic. Last year, wardens found the carcasses of more than two dozen eagles rotting on the garbage dump of a logging camp on Prince of Wales Island. The birds had been shot by someone who resented regulations or federal officials or eagles. The Forest Service isn't directly responsible for these dead eagles or the lost grizzlies, but some destruction of wildlife is a predictable result of timberland development.

The extent to which logging endangers salmon spawning beds is in dispute, largely because the service maintains that no damage is being done. Bulldozers and skidders once raised havoc by wallowing through spawning gravel, and the logging of steep, unstable slopes once caused erosion, but no more, according to the agency. Problems that once existed are now prevented by new regulations and techniques, or by what the service calls "mitigation." Perhaps, but state fish biologists are doubtful.

Fishermen are doubtful, too, and they stand to lose more than just an argument if the Forest Service doesn't mitigate as well as it says it will. At Pelican, on the Lisianski Inlet, fisherman Reuben Yost, who is a town councilman, says, "You would have to be naive" to believe that the Forest Service could build 21 heavy bridges across the river without fouling the salmon spawning gravel.

As he says this, Yost and most of Pelican's other townspeople are waiting for Forest Service floatplanes to bring in several members of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. The townspeople are proud of Pelican, a bright little village strung along half a mile of boardwalk on the steep side of the inlet, and they should be. Fishing brings in $1 million a year here. Pelican has a fish-freezing plant, a general store, a shipshape array of docks and boats and houses, a medical clinic, a fire station, a new town hall, a school system that can see the town's 50 children through 12th grade, and a bar and grill named Rosie's that can see to them after they graduate.

There are even some pickup trucks, though the boardwalk is the only road, and several have bumper stickers that read I'M PROUD OF MY CONGRESSMAN BOB MRAZEK. As it happens, Mrazek is a Democrat who represents a district in New York. But he has introduced the Tongass Timber Reform Act, a bill that would subject the Forest Service follies in the Tongass to yearly congressional review. Mrazek bumper stickers can be found all over Juneau and Anchorage, too. Representative Young of Alaska must not think this is funny, because he does not accompany the delegation, which includes Mrazek and Mo Udall, the Arizona Democrat who is the chairman of the committee.

The people of Pelican fill the legislative bellies with a good potluck lunch and then fill their ears with arguments that are not those of city environmentalists. Several people take pains to say that they don't like to see crops (trees, in this case) not being put to use but that losing enormous amounts of money to harvest $2 trees doesn't make sense, especially when you lose the deer-hunting and maybe the salmon in the bargain. They don't like the idea of "locking land up" as wilderness, which means a lot of entangling regulations enforced by woodsmen in uniforms, but some wonder if Lisianski Inlet could get wilderness status.

A few days later Ken Roberts, the Forest Service's district supervisor for the Tongass region that encompasses Chichagof Island, announces that the agency intends to put Lisianski up for logging in the five-year period now being planned. Road building has been put on hold to give local people their say. Roberts is a sharp advocate and a patient, polite listener. He seems typical of the service's field-level managers. Giving the public its say, and then patiently and politely ignoring objections, is something they do very well.

They could do their jobs more easily if they were left to manage the forests without interference, but that's not possible. So they listen to both sides. On one side, they will tell you, are the environmental activists—sincere but emotional people who oppose cutting even one tree. On the other are the timber-industry extremists who want to keep their mills going and don't care how they do it. Square in the middle, dispensing reason to the hotheads, is where the Forest Service sees itself.

So from the agency's point of view, the prospect for the Lisianski Inlet is frontier justice—a fair trial followed by a hanging. It is doubtful whether Congress can do anything to stop it. Mrazek's bill (H.R. 1516), which would force yearly congressional review, has 150 cosponsors and probably will pass in the House. If it does, the companion bill to break the 50-year contracts probably will pass as well. The outcome in the Senate is more doubtful, with both of Alaska's senators rolling the pork barrel. One representative handicaps the situation this way: The environmentalists will win either Mrazek's 1516 or the effort to stop the oil companies from grabbing the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. They won't lose both, but they won't win both, either.

That's the way the tree falls in the legislative wilderness.






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