Retooling the Tongass

Retooling the Tongass – legislation on timber cutting in Southeast Alaska

Herbert E. McLean

To U.S. planners, the idea of “colonizing” Alaska’s southeast panhandle following World War II sounded appealing. The Japanese had, after all, forcibly occupied parts of the nearby Aleutian chain. And with that aggression came a geopolitical imperative to put people on the land. “Protecting one’s turf” we call it today.

Timber appeared to be a natural base for that expansion. But Southeast Alaska wasn’t exactly hot property for lumbering and pulping back then, despite its huge supply of western hemlock and Sitka spruce. That timber was, in fact, just too far from markets in a supply-saturated economy.

Only by offering long-term, special-incentive contracts could the U.S. Forest Service attract the two giants that dominate the industry in southeastern Alaska: Ketchikan Pulp Company (KPC), now a Louisiana-Pacific subsidiary, and Alaska Pulp Corporation (APC), a Japanese producer.

As environmentalist breezes freshened in the U.S. over the past two decades, they swept with force across Alaska’s 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, correctly characterized by environmentalists as “one of the last temperate-zone rainforests in North America.” The Forest Service figuratively sizzled as the agency took most of the heat in an epic war between environmentalists and loggers over Tongass timber contracts.

Particularly at issue: 1980 provisions guaranteeing KPC and APC a 4.5-billion-board-foot supply of pulp and sawlogs per decade, and allotting the Forest Service an annual $40 million operating fund to sustain that harvest rate. Environmentalists thought those levels were too high and fought them effectively, using adroit PR strategies.

“Trashing the Tongass,” “Forest Service Follies,” and similar headlines appeared on a stream of reactive articles in national newspapers, magazines, and even sporting publications. Like the legendary Taku winds that rake Juneau every winter, the attacks were unrelenting, persuasive.

Today a peace of sorts has settled over the islanded wilderness.

The Tongass Timber Reform Act, signed by President Bush last November, changed the forest-management game plan by removing the big operating fund and the 4.5-billion-board-foot quota, and by creating more than one million acres of no-logging areas, including six new wilderness areas. For what it’s worth, the acreage involved is half the size of Rhode Island. The new set-asides, together with 5.4 million acres of wilderness set aside in 1980, now comprise 38 percent of the sprawling forest–up six percentage points. Some of the areas have eye-popping recreational appeal.

“It’s a time to heal,” Mike Barton, Alaska Region forester for the Forest Service, wearily told AMERICAN FORESTS earlier this year. “The Tongass issue has been debated for 19 years, and it’s time to get on with running the forest.”

For the Tongass, that means assessing the impact of the new legislation on contracts already in place and rewriting them as needed. Of importance to the environmental community, market demand–rather than a pre-set quota–will determine harvest levels.

Says Larry Blasing of the Alaska Forestry Association (formerly Alaska Loggers Association), “Naturally we’re dismayed at the amount of commercial timberland that has been removed from harvest. But the result was about as good as we could bring about. We’ll be working with the Forest Service to see that the language in the act is interpreted to assure an adequate timber supply.”

Ketchikan Pulp’s timber-division manager, Owen Graham, agreed that there’s flexibility in the plan, but he acknowledged that industry’s options are narrower these days as the proverbial noose tightens on the Tongass timber supply.

“We have the choice of accepting the new Forest Service contract when it’s drafted, filing a lawsuit, or pulling out altogether,” he said stoically.

But most contacts AMERICAN FORESTS talked with agreed that the logging industry will not suffer an immediate slump as a result of the new law. Much of the logging now going on in southeastern Alaska is taking place on Native lands, where far fewer restrictions apply.

Meanwhile, at the Southeast Alaska Natural Resources Center in Juneau, spokesman Joe Mehrkens says that his group (affiliated with the Wilderness Society) sees “major flaws” in Forest Service land-use management plans: alleged errors in timber-base calculations and noncataloged salmon-rearing streams needing more protection. “Overall, the act is long on lands protection but short on management reforms,” he says.

Bart Koehler, executive director of the Sierra Club-affiliated Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEAC), adds, “Everybody was so totally polarized, they were beating each other up for decades. Overall, the act is an extremely significant piece of legislation, with a fair resolution. Our role now is to work to assure that the Forest Service has a good plan, with good balance.”

All sides seem to agree on one point: It’s a downright relief that Congress finally acted, and it’s time now to move toward normalcy, whatever that is.

Meanwhile, newly fueled issues on another front are sweeping the Tongass. A resurgence of mining along the so-called “Juneau gold belt” and elsewhere on the Tongass raises a whole new set of questions.

As Barton talks of “enhancing economic viability” on the Tongass through mining, SEAC is calling such moves “nothing less than a violation of public trust.”

And so it goes.

As with most things in the Great Land, the Tongass National Forest is an arena of epic dimensions. The current controversies, it would appear, simply match the monumentality of the land itself.

Herb McLean of Eastsound, Washington, is a frequent contributor to this magazine. This pulp mill and log pond belong to one of the two companies that dominate southeastern Alaska’s timber industry.

COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group