KETCHIKAN, Alaska — It is the emerald forest of myth: a land of brooding trees and fog-swathed fiords, high fields of ice and coves thick with fish, sprawling 500 miles across the edge of a continent. It is the last great green land.
Straddling Alaska's famed Inside Passage, the Tongass National Forest is the largest and most intact temperate rain forest on Earth--17 million acres, bigger than all the national forests of Oregon combined.
Forty years after the federal government launched a campaign to tame the Tongass by churning its timber into a network of pulp mills and sawmills, the future of its remaining grand old stands of Sitka spruce and hemlock has erupted into one of the biggest resource battles of the 1990s.
The decision on whether to save or sell the wooded valleys--completion of a new land management plan is expected later this month--will make or break an economy that has sustained Southeast Alaska since statehood.
Just as important, the Tongass debate will force the nation to confront its historic ambivalence about the advancing frontier, a line that has pushed steadily westward for 370 years and, of geographic necessity, has stopped here at this line of big trees.
All the issues that have fueled the Pacific Northwest timber wars in recent decades are now converging here, home to the nation's last healthy wild salmon runs, decimated elsewhere; a network of raw timber towns--places like Sitka, Ketchikan and Wrangell--whose survival has depended on the big mills that are shutting their doors; a booming tourism industry that depends on the Tongass to captivate visitors cruising the Inside Passage.
And the question often asked is: Whose Alaska is it anyway?
"I guess the real danger signal . . . is that there clearly is a push by many people who have a significant amount of power to shut down all of Alaska. And I'm assuming they're going to turn it into some great big national park, whereby only tourists can visit," said Mark Suwyn, CEO of Louisiana-Pacific Corp., in announcing plans to shut down the aging pulp mill at Ketchikan--a death blow to industrial forestry in the region.
"The last temperate rain forest? Well, yeah. But we're some of the last people that live up here too," said Ketchikan borough Mayor Jack Shay. "A lot of this environmental movement comes from people who have a lot of guilt about what they didn't protect in their own backyards. We are kind of being held hostage for the collective guilt . . . and that kind of irritates us."
Yet a growing number of Southeast Alaskans see the decision to close down the Ketchikan mill--500 workers will lose their jobs in March, maybe twice that number if the company doesn't come to agreement with the government over timber supplies for two remaining sawmills--as an opportunity. Now is the time, they say, to save what's left of the forest, to develop a home-grown wood-products industry that cuts fewer trees and uses it to better effect at home.
"The contracts for those mills were established in the '50s, when the Tongass was viewed as one big tree farm. Alaska was a territory, and the timber seemed endless," said Bart Koehler, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which has battled for a slowdown in logging on the Tongass. "All that's changed now. The era of the timber barons is over."
Threat to Forest Underestimated?
In the early 1950s the federal government, eager to jump-start the faltering fishing economy of the Alaskan Panhandle, signed long-term contracts for the delivery of cheap Tongass wood that set up two major pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan and opened the way for a network of sawmills elsewhere in the region.
Suddenly there were jobs, and not just any jobs. Ketchikan mill workers were taking home salaries of $41,000 a year; big new houses started sprouting up on the hillsides of the gritty old fishing town, as did car dealerships and fast-food restaurants. Meanwhile, the thickest groves of old-growth timber, spruce trees 500 years old and more, were rushed into production to feed the pulp mills' decades-long contracts. Between 1954 and 1993, 10,000 acres a year fell to the chain saws.
Yet the Tongass is so big that it can be hard to see what all the agonizing is about.
It remains an astonishingly productive wildlife habitat, sheltering the world's largest concentrations of grizzly bears, bald eagles and Sitka black-tailed deer. Wolves, in decline around the nation, are abundant here. Wild salmon, disappearing in the Pacific Northwest, choke the streams of the Tongass on their spawning runs.
With establishment of national monuments at Admiralty Island and Misty Fjords and other wilderness areas, about 86% of the forest has been placed in reserves, including 6.3 million acres of designated wilderness. Only 1.7 million acres are designated for logging. And forest industry representatives note that 93% of the Tongass' old-growth trees are still standing.