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May 4, 1999

For the Planet

In Defense of the Wild

by Woody Justice

As reported earlier, last fall's budget frenzy in Washington ignored wilderness preservation in favor of commodity production on federal lands. Detrimental "riders" tacked on to the rescissions bill included mining and grazing, oil royalty exclusions, "restoration" (stripping the land in "low grade" forests and replanting), more roadbuilding, and interest-group directed timber plans proposed to protect forest health such as the Quincy Library Group bill. (How did the forests thrive so well before our management efforts?).

In that round, Alaska's Tongass National Forest suffered $10 million in increased funding for logging and a road across a National Wildlife Refuge. (The Tongass National Forest is USFS's top money loser, with an estimated loss of $30.6 million in 1997.) In January, when the White House announced the moratorium on new roads, the Tongass was under a previous logging plan that exempted it from that protection. The moratorium was weak in practice because it did not address temporary roads; these are not counted in the 380,000 miles of roads (eight times as many as the U.S. interstate system) in the NF lands and are commonly overlooked for required closure. Experts claim that these are the most ecologically destructive forces on national forests -- more so than the logging itself, accelerating erosion and water runoff that leads to mud slides and floods. (A USFS report confirms that 58 percent of the 900 mudslides in the Clearwater NF during the winter of 1995-96 were caused by logging roads and twelve percent by logging.)

Due in part to dozens of pending appeals (and more than 19,000 public comments), the Clinton Administration updated the 1997 Tongass management plan last month. The new plan reduces the allowable timber harvest in the Tongass by thirty percent a year, and land open to logging will shrink by fifteen percent to about 576,000 acres. Of the 234,000 additional acres being protected (from logging only; other resource extractions and grazing are still allowed), 134,000 were not considered suitable for logging anyway. Officials said the changes will help sustain the forest industries, as the allowable harvest remains well within the projected demand for timber from the region in coming years.

Predictably, the Alaska Forest Association and Alaska's congressional delegation hammered the changes. The head of the trade group, representing 300 forest-products companies that see corporate welfare as an entitlement, claimed that "this administration is determined to drive the last nail in the coffin of Southeast Alaska's timber-based economy." (Forest products and mining generate less income in Alaska than do fisheries and tourism.) Sen. Frank Murkowski called it a "scientific insult, a legal affront and an economic crime." Rep. Don Young went even further, calling the plan's changes a "sham" that "abandons science, abandons common sense, abandons law, abandons Alaskans." The truth is that the Forest Service's land management decisions were guided by commodity production, not science, and that harvests too often broke the law. The immediate results of that policy have been mudslides, flooding, species extinction, ruined fisheries and recreation bases, and federally subsidized loss of private property and life.

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in the United States, Stretching 500 miles along the southeastern coast of Alaska. The Tongass embraces hundreds of islands, majestic mountains, sparkling glaciers, and deep fiords, and contains the largest and most intact temperate rainforest in the world -- 29 percent of the planet's remaining unlogged temperate rainforest. Nestled in this rugged country, along the beach fringes and river valleys, are magnificent stands of huge Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock trees towering over a lush understory. However, few large blocks of unfragmented oldgrowth exist in the Tongass, and these are under siege from a timber industry that wants to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the forest.

Oh, the harvesters can make it sound reasonable. A brochure published by the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce provides information that is spun so tight that it frays. For instance: "If the Tongass were a football field, only ten yards is available for timber harvest, ever (about 1.7 million acres). Since the forest products industry began, only 2.35 yards have been harvested to date (just over 400,000 acres). Of those ten yards, only 2 inches is available for harvest in any given year." They include a colorful pie chart of Southeast Alaska Land Distribution, 21.2 million acres, showing a ten percent wedge as "allowable timber base" and almost half as "Wilderness, Monuments, Non-Forested land." An industry brochure claims that: "(35 percent) 5.9 million acres of the Tongass are capable of growing commercial forests. Absolutely no timber harvesting is allowed in Wilderness Areas, National Parks and Preserves, National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges and State Parks. These lands comprise 140 million acres or almost 40% of the total land area in Alaska."

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, seeking greater wilderness protection, and the Tongass Conservation Society, whose focus is on cleaning up the contamination from decades of turning the Tongass into pulp for diapers at the now-closed Ketchikan Pulp mill, provide some reference to these claims. The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest is two-thirds rock, ice, muskeg and scrubland; the remaining third is considered commercial forestland. The Tongass exists in a marginal climate in marginal soil, and consequently, "productive" forestland is very sparse. Most of the wilderness areas and National Parks have very little forested land; they are either rock and glacier or isolated valleys that have very large amounts of non-timberland and very small quantities of harvestable timber next to streams and rivers that are important for salmon production. (Eighty percent of the fish caught in Southeast Alaska were spawned in streams on the Tongass National Forest.) What is left and included in the "timber base" is also the most valuable for other uses such as recreation and habitat. There is a basic disagreement about whether or not it is appropriate to convert these last bits of temperate rainforest into monoculture tree farms, and it is questionable if this is even possible given the soil and climate.

Only four percent of the Tongass National Forest contains high-volume old-growth trees; these areas are in greatest demand by the timber industry. The 1.7 million acres scheduled for logging under the challenged forest plan is made up of sparse stands separated by great distances in rugged terrain. The only way for this to be affordable is through more federal road- construction subsidies. Over six million acres of the Tongass would be crisscrossed with roads and clearcuts to log these 1.7 million acres.

How much wilderness is enough? In a research project completed last fall, Cartographic Technologies, a geographical information systems company in Vermont, located the most remote place. The study examined the contiguous United States and found that you can't get much farther away than 111 degrees 16 minutes 47.03 seconds West Longitude, 37 degrees 24 minutes 49.5 seconds North Latitude. Although it looks isolated (see the photo on their website it is only twenty miles from the nearest road.

Here in a region scarred by sprawl and with little undeveloped acreage, why should we be concerned with wilderness preservation? If you have to ask, you might not understand; if you've never been there, you might not care. Future generations, maybe your own descendants, may want the opportunity to walk through the forest primeval, to see what the first inhabitants on this continent saw, to experience the natural world untainted by human influence. There isn't much left, and it is going fast.

Jose Lutzenberger said, "In the environmental movement, our defeats are always final, our victories always provisional. What you save today can still be destroyed tomorrow." And what is destroyed or used up or extinct is no more, gone forever. This is why conservation means never-ending vigilance, at least until our priorities are changed.

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