O.K., that's another week's worth of BTUs split and stacked. Change to dry shirt. Where was I?
According to careful Forest Service estimates, 26 million board feet of lumber—almost all of it old-growth, high-volume Sitka spruce, although there is some mountain hemlock mixed in—may be cut in the Lisianski tract. That is 5.7% of the 450 million board feet from the Tongass that the Forest Service claims it is obligated by law to prepare and offer for sale each year, or about what might be felled in a week in the Tongass during the summer cutting season. The trees are giant, fine-grained patriarchs, many of which were mature before the U.S. Constitution was signed. Powerful environmental reasons exist for not cutting them. An untouched, old-growth forest is not merely a stand of trees with an animal population, but an enormously complex and delicate organism, consisting of trees, other plants, animals, water, sunlight, atmosphere and flows of thermal and chemical energy.
Wait a minute, thinks a man who knows tree-hugging when he sees it. Never mind that sentimental stuff about "fine-grained patriarchs." Let's hear about those 26 million board feet of Sitka spruce. That's prime timber, right?
It sure is, suitable for fine furniture, guitars and piano sounding boards.
So a lot of money is involved?
The answer is an emphatic yes-and-no. The spruce is prime, but not much of it will be used as high quality saw-logs. Almost all of it will be fed into chippers at the Alaska Pulp Co. mill in Sitka. The mill is owned by the Industrial Bank of Japan. Lest xenophobia be suspected, it should be noted that the Louisiana-Pacific Co., a true-blue American outfit, owns a second Alaskan pulp mill, in Ketchikan, into which Tongass old-growth timber is also fed. But by careful design, the territories of these mills do not overlap, and the Lisianski trees have been promised to the Japanese.
O.K., forget guitars and pianos. Aren't we still talking about big bucks?
Well, the problem is that the Sitka and Ketchikan mills were set up in the 1950s to turn out cellulose for rayon and cellophane. The Forest Service had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a timber exporting business going in Alaska. To lure wary capital to the frozen North, the service gave each mill owner its own sphere of influence and a 50-year sweetheart contract, guaranteeing fire-sale stump-age rates (the price of standing timber), with a lot of costs absorbed by the government.
In 1980 a poorly drafted federal bill, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), made the deal even cozier. ANILCA directed the Forest Service to give the two pulp-wood companies a total of $40 million a year in aid "or whatever sums are necessary" to achieve the timber supply goal. Today, the expenditure, which the service insists should not be called a subsidy, runs about $62 million per annum. Moreover, part of the ANILCA deal was that Congress agreed not to examine and approve these costs every year, as it does other federal expenditures. However....
How could there be a however?