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Save the Holes

The Story of Human Migration Into North America May Be Written in Caves Beneath the Southeast Alaskan Wilderness. An Unlikely Trio of Men Is Convinced That Clear-Cut Logging Is About to Erase It.

August 08, 2004|Rebecca Clarren | Rebecca Clarren is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

The opening in the craggy rock face is no bigger than a guitar case, yet caver Steve Lewis, even at 6 feet tall, seems unfazed, and quickly drops his long body underground to meet Kevin Allred and Pete Smith, his two somewhat shorter fellow explorers. There, 10 feet beneath giant Sitka spruce and the fierce winds of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, a dry, narrow passage opens into what may as well be a different planet. The glow from their carbide lights illuminates scalloped walls of a meringue-like crystalline mineral that drips into delicate stalactites. The air is cold, silent and still; it's easy to imagine this is some ancient tomb.

"This is our last frontier. The deep sea and these caves up here are the only unexplored places left," says the 48-year-old Smith, his sinewy form crouched beneath the cave's slanted roof. "You can climb a cliff that no one's been on before, but at least you can see where you're going. When you enter a cave, you don't know what you're going to find. The smallest passage could lead to a 500-foot room."

Created hundreds of thousands of years ago by rainwater that eroded porous limestone bedrock, caves such as this one, underground rivers and deep pits speckle the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. During the last 13 years, Lewis, Allred and Smith, along with others with whom they work, have discovered nearly two-thirds of the 600 known caves in the area. They estimate there could be 600 more, making this one of the best cave landscapes--known as "karst"--in the world. Unaffected by development, these caves have revealed 41,600-year-old bear bones, 10,000-year-old human bones and the skeletal remains of thousands of birds, mammals and fish from before, during and after the Ice Age. Such findings have led paleontologists and archeologists to reconsider theories of human migration into North America.

As the three men balance in rubber boots on the slick cave floor, they speak, finishing one another's sentences in the excited but hushed tones generally reserved for museums. Then Lewis notices the cream cheese texture of the walls: Dirt is filtering into the cave, turning its white sheen a dingy brown.

"Damn," he says.

The porous bedrock that produces these caves also produces acres of well-drained soil, creating some of the largest trees in the world--many with 10-foot diameters. If clear-cut, the forest floor erodes and debris and water can infiltrate the caves, destroying artifacts, stalactites and the fragile structure of these ancient domains. That's not good for wildlife either, says Lewis. Caves contain habitat not only for rare bats and aquatic invertebrates, but also for bear, wolves, salmon and deer. The forest above this particular cave has been clear-cut. Sitka spruce and hemlock litter the forest floor like bodies on a Civil War battlefield.

The three men say that the logging practice is destroying many of the remaining unspoiled subterranean landscapes in Alaska. At last count, 39% of commercial forest land in the Tongass already has been logged. Now the cavers fear a new onslaught.

In late December, President Bush revoked the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest, a regulation created by the Clinton administration that would have prevented any new logging and road-building in large tracts of intact forest. Now 50 new timber sales in roadless areas and hundreds of miles of new roads are slated for the next 10 years. That's good news for the timber industry and the locals it employs, but much of that work could take place above undiscovered caves. Plus, last month the administration proposed allowing governors to petition the Secretary of Agriculture (who oversees the U.S. Forest Service) to log currently unroaded land. The rule, if finalized in September, will allow Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski to request that the Forest Service allow logging on an additional 7 million acres of the Tongass. If the agency denies his request, the state could sue.

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