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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tongass, Part II

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Fifty years of intensive logging and road-building nearly decimated parts of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. And ruined the local timber industry. Now, as producer Guy Hand reports, southeast Alaskans are wondering what to do next.


Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Bela Fleck, "Black Forest")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Tongass National Forest, America's largest, is a land of both biological wonder and stunning environmental damage. For nearly a half-century, large-scale logging ruled southeast Alaska. Big federal subsidies and few restrictions allowed the industry to cut hundreds of thousands of acres of prime old growth forest. But then came antitrust convictions, clean air and water violations, and intense criticism by environmental groups. U.S. forestry officials eventually canceled the logging contracts. And today the Tongass timber industry faces economic collapse. Producer Guy Hand has found the people of Alaska are now only beginning to understand what decades of clear cutting has done to the Tongass.

(Flowing water, bird calls)

HAND: It's hard to imagine there's trouble in Paradise when you're hiking through a stunning stand of southeast Alaskan temperate rainforest. Ancient trees burst through a carpet of green. Bird song fills the air. Rivers flow as clear and bright as crystal. But the Tongass has another side.

PILOT: We're looking at Prince of Wales Island here, which has the most logging and roading of all the islands in southern southeast Alaska.

HAND: And for a time this island harbored both the largest logging camp in the world and the most magnificent stand of old growth forest in all the Tongass. Now they're both gone. What remains is transformed by clear-cuts and logging roads.

(Footfalls on snow)

PERSON: These right here are wolf tracks.

HAND: On a rare sunny day in March, Dave Person and Amy Russel, wildlife biologists with Alaskan Fish and Game, are hiking a logging road covered in crusted snow. They're on Prince of Wales in part to study how this aggressively-roaded landscape is affecting wolf populations.

PERSON: And so, this is kind of like the worst-case scenario with respect to trying to balance logging and development with those wildlife concerns.

HAND: As the snow-covered road gives way to dirt, Dave and Amy find more sign of solves. Amy Russel.

RUSSEL: This is a little area that we think the puppies were active digging on. There's a little hole in the tree over there.

HAND: Oh yeah.

RUSSEL: Everywhere you go, there are bones chewed up and lots of sign of wolves all over the place.

HAND: Dave and Amy's work is revealing that logging roads, like the one we're following, have a big if indirect impact on wolves.

PERSON: The road itself is not an issue for wolves. In fact, there is this playground right here that puppies use. But it's not the road. It's the access it affords. And what people do once they get there.

RUSSEL: It's largely from people driving the roads, encountering animals, and shooting them.

HAND: Although hunting has always been important to Alaskans, hunters once traveled mainly by boat, working the coastal fringe and riverways.

PERSON: The center parts of these islands were essentially refugia for a lot of wildlife species, because they just weren't accessible. In the past, probably any hunting, trapping, didn't really matter very much in terms of effect on the population. But the potential now with roads is much greater.

HAND: Dave and Amy are looking at another after effect of industrial logging, the clear-cuts themselves.

PERSON: Shall we walk up?

HAND: Sure.

HAND: In the rainy, fertile Tongass, clear-cuts don't remain clear for long. In fact, they spring into second-growth forest too well. Their unbroken, even-age canopies shut out the light. Little grows on the forest floor. And in winter, that's a big problem for deer.

RUSSEL: There's absolutely nothing to eat here. Not one thing.

PERSON: And this condition lasts for perhaps 150 to 200 years. It is basically an area where a deer would have to pack its lunch in order to find anything to eat here.

HAND: In the next 40 to 50 years, these forested deserts, bereft of food, will spread across the land as young trees replace clear-cuts. And although the forest will appear to be recovering, its biological diversity will be much reduced. Deer numbers will fall. And when they do, Dave Person predicts wolves will pay the price.

PERSON: When we see declines in deer, most people are not going to sit there and say oh my gosh, look what we did to the habitat, look what happened to the deer, what can we do to fix it? A lot of folks around here are going to blame wolves.

(Beeps and static)

HAND: Dave and Amy are picking up the signal from one of the radio-collared female wolves they've been studying.

PERSON: I think she's over here, and I don't know quite how far yet.

HAND: The three of us walk deep into a forest of stumps and settle on a ridge.

PERSON: I think this would be a good vantage point.

HAND: Dave cups his hands together, tilts his head back, and howls.

(Person howls)

PERSON: (softly) Okay, we sit and wait.

HAND: We wait for several minutes. Then off to our right, on a tree-covered ridge, wolves begin to call.

(Wolves howl in the distance)

RUSSEL: The interesting thing, I don't know if you could hear, is just how musical the howling is. It's something that other people really aren't familiar with, working with wolves elsewhere. They're used to the traditional kind of siren-like arooo, like that. But these are like (sings). It's crazy.

PERSON: I could never understand why people get frightened by that sound. It's a very musical sound.

HAND: Yet, there are many left uninspired by the musicality of wolves. Many, who prefer the sound of falling timber.

(An engine revs up)

HAND: And all it takes is a plane flight over Prince of Wales Island to see whose taste won out.

(The plane takes off)

HAND: From a couple thousand feet I can see clear-cuts running away in every direction, logging roads slashed across whole mountainsides. What I can't see are the more subtle ways 50-some years of industrial logging have changed this island. The delicate limestone caves damaged by wastewater and logging debris. The plants, animals, insects, fish, who have lost their habitat. The native peoples who have lost their traditional hunting grounds and homes. K.J. Metcalf was a Forest Service naturalist during the heyday of big timber on the Tongass.

METCALF: There were some terrible management practices going on in the field, where streams were being ruined. Thousands of acres were being clear-cut at one time. No consideration for wildlife habitat, and the only real consideration was whatever the logger wanted, the Forest Service seemed to accommodate.

SEVER: To me it's a shameful page in Alaskan history.

HAND: Longtime Tongass resident Florian Sever.

SEVER: And it's a shameful page in American history.

HAND: At the time, he was working at the Alaska Pulp Company's mill in Sitka, he saw red liquor, a byproduct of the pulping process, flowing into once pristine waterways.

SEVER: I have videos of the wake of a boat going up Silver Bay, where the water in the wake is absolutely red from red liquor.

HAND: Florian says dioxin-tainted fly ash was also pumped into the water.

SEVER: And for a six-month period, Alaska Pulp Corporation illegally and criminally flushed every bit of that out to Silver Bay, through illegal piping that was in the mill.

BALLARD: I was the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 in the eighties.

HAND: Ernesta Ballard is now a board member of the Alaska Forest Association.

BALLARD: It would not be my conclusion that either of the pulp mills were abusive. The people 20 and 30 years ago were doing what they thought were best practices at the time. We have a higher standard today. But the fact that there is a higher standard today doesn't mean that the earlier standard was abusive or deliberately harmful.

HAND: Nor does she believe logging roads have left a legacy of environmental damage.

BALLARD: If you look at the fish data, if you look at the slide data, if you look at any data you want, there just isn't a substantiation that the roads are a hazard to any macro- or micro-ecology. It just is not substantiated that building roads causes harm.

HAND: Yet the roadless initiative was supported by numerous scientists and land use policy makers. They say logging roads are responsible for landslides, siltation, stream degradation, and more. Yet the timber industry sees a road ban as just one more nail in the coffin of commerce. Ron Wolf, corporate forester for Sea Alaska Corporation.

WOLF: The Clinton administration and these recent rulings have done a good job of basically putting our Alaska timber industry on its knees. I mean, this is an ailing industry that is struggling for its absolute very survival. Mills throughout southeast Alaska have closed down. They are not in business. They are gone away. And those communities are literally devastated because there is no other economy there.

NELSON: People might blame conservationists for the movement against clear-cut logging. But that's to put the blame in the wrong place.

HAND: Alaskan writer and environmental activist Richard Nelson.

NELSON: Clear cutting in southeast Alaska is what created the resistance to clear cutting in southeast Alaska. Industrial logging nurtures its own demise by what it does to the forest.

HAND: Richard says he has nothing against falling timber.

NELSON: I am a wood user. I've cut down lots of trees in my life. I believe that loggers ought to have a place out there in the forest. It's noble work, it's honorable work. I don't have any problem at all with a stump in the forest. But what breaks my heart is a forest of stumps. (Footfalls, voices)

VALENTINE: Here's a nice pile of logs on my truck, about 1974.

HAND: Dave Valentine is one of hundreds of Alaskan loggers caught in the middle of this Tongass timber debate. He shows me, at this kitchen table, snapshots documenting a life in the woods.

VALENTINE: Here's a picture of my son when he was about four, standing in a shower of sawdust near that fellow's sawmill.

HAND: In a kind of timber town baptism, Dave's son beams in the photograph as sawdust sprinkles down on his head.

VALENTINE: Here is a picture someone took of me sawing a nice spruce. That's what I'd like to be doing right now. It's more fun than eating ice cream. (Laughs) More fun than kissing pretty girls. (Laughs)

HAND: The question conservationists are asking on the Tongass isn't how to stop logging. Not a single activist I spoke to suggested that. The question is how to cut trees without killing forest.

(An engine revs up)

HAND: Mike Sallee might have an answer.

SALLEE: Let's see, we're going to be headed out to my sawmill, of which that's one of about three different resource-extracting activities I do. I'm also a harvest diver and a deck hand on a long-line fishing boat, which fishes for black cod and halibut.

(Engine continues)

HAND: Mike's sawmill can only be reached by water. Prior to big corporate timber, that wasn't unusual. Loggers took advantage of the waterways that connect the thousands of islands that make up the Tongass. Logs were stored and transported on water. In fact, many of the sawmills themselves floated on water. As we approach Mike's mill, a tidy collection of cut timber and equipment nestled on a ridge, Mike idles toward a raft of logs. He'll soon winch them onto shore to cut and mill.

SALLEE: See, this is a log that I just got across the canal here. It's, shoot, I don't know, 30-some feet long. This came off of a landslide someplace...

HAND: Marcel LaPierre, a burly bear of a guy, is helping Mike lasso logs into position.

LAPIERRE: The small-scale logging wouldn't really be affected by the roadless initiative at all because, for instance, like Mike here, he salvages most of his wood off the beach, either from slides or logs that have gotten away from booms and so forth. You can't go on any of these beaches in southeast Alaska here and not see hundreds, thousands, millions of logs. So Mike salvages those. And that's a good thing.

HAND: Other independent loggers keep busy harvesting timber near existing roads, in areas the big operations missed or deemed unprofitable.

LAPIERRE: There's thousands of board feet of timber that are still available right alongside the roads.

SALLEE: Okay, yeah, I'm probably going to have to move that out of the way, too...

HAND: Marcel, Mike, and many others believe the future of timber harvesting on the Tongass lies in its past, before the era of industrial logging.

LAPIERRE: Certainly if you look at the past 40 to 50 years, you will see that there's been tremendous over-harvesting with little regard for the environment. If you look further back, you'll see that there was a timber industry here for 50 years prior. I could take you into areas and you wouldn't even know that trees had been taken out of there. I think we can go back to that to some degree.

HAND: In fact, studies show that harvesting less timber but finishing it locally, designing and making furniture, for instance, could create three times the jobs generated during the pulp mill era.

SALLEE: Okay, hang on, I'm going to jerk this log off the bigger log.

HAND: Still, we Americans aren't a people who like to look to the past for answers. Suggesting an about-face on a march toward the future sounds naive at best. But then, there's the Tongass.

SALLEE: Okay, hang on.

HAND: When it comes to something as ancient as an old-growth forest, our faith in modern industrial logging might be the most naive notion of all.

SALLEE: That's fine. No, right there's fine. Just take a wrap around the hemlock and tie it there.

HAND: For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.

SALLEE: Logs have a nasty habit of breaking loose when they're left for long periods of time. Just like that one up there on the beach. It will roll down the beach and it will pull a staple out or break the line.

CURWOOD: The Bush Administration was set to implement the Clinton ban on building new roads in national forests fule on May 12th with some modifications. But now a federal district judge in Idaho has blocked it altogether. Judge Edward Lodge said the rule would do - quote "irreparable harm" - to the timber industry; and local and state officials charged with managing the forests. The White House has not said whether it will file an appeal. But environmental parties to the case promise to take it to appeals court anyway. The Forest Service says if it gets the greem light it plans to build more roads in the Tongass and open new areas to substantial logging.



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