SI Vault
John Skow
March 14, 1988
In Alaska, as in the Lower 48, the U.S. Forest Service is turning the timberlands it is supposed to reserve and protect into mismanaged tree factories
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March 14, 1988

The Forest Service Follies

In Alaska, as in the Lower 48, the U.S. Forest Service is turning the timberlands it is supposed to reserve and protect into mismanaged tree factories

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No, they're extra. Between 600 and 700 Forest Service staffers are assigned to Southeast Alaska.

All working hard to lose 99 cents on every dollar the government puts up?

Not at all. They manage the forests and support the fragile economy of Southeast Alaska. Or so they say.

O.K., but if tree cutting is losing money, and the pulp mills can't make money even though they buy the trees for zilch, and if jobs are the only justification for the logging, then what we've got is a big social project, with one Forest Service social worker for every two lumberjacks. Does this make sense?

Apparently it does to someone. Steve Cowper, Alaska's Democratic governor, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, the state's U.S. senators, both Republicans, and Don Young, another Republican who is its U.S. representative, are all for the program.

Do I smell pork?

Whacking the Forest Service for fiscal wastefulness is so satisfying that it is easy to forget the harm its policies are doing to the environment. It seems certain that the agency is putting two prosperous, tax-paying Alaskan industries, fishing and tourism, at risk with a doomed effort to support the limping, artificially created cellulose-pulp industry. However, lost dollars can be replaced or done without; tourists can go elsewhere if the woodlands are befouled or game is too scarce; and fish can be found in other seas if Alaska's catch suffers too much from damage to spawning streams caused by logging and road construction projects. What won't be replaced, at least until the next glacial age has come and gone, is the Tongass National Forest.

The environmental argument over logging the Tongass whirls with numbers, beginning with the forest's 16.8 million acres, which make it three times the size of any other U.S. national forest. ANILCA set aside 5.4 million of those acres as wilderness. The timber industry makes much of its "sacrifice" in giving up those 5.4 million acres, especially now that other timber-related provisions of ANILCA are under fire. Bills pending in both houses of Congress would repeal provisions that require the Forest Service to spend $40 million annually to aid the two Tongass pulp plants and to prepare 450 million board feet of timber for sale each year. The bills would also reinstitute yearly congressional review of costs and appropriations. Other bills would undo the 50-year sweetheart logging contracts.

What is really being fought over in those legislative battles are not the 5.4 million acres of wilderness in the Tongass, or the remaining 11.4 million acres that are unprotected, but much smaller stretches of old-growth forest. Most of the Tongass is high rock and ice, spectacularly beautiful but not good for growing anything except lichens and mountain goats. The Forest Service estimates that only 3.1 million acres are suitable for timber harvest—that is, the trees there are large enough and abundant enough for logging.

But that doesn't mean these areas are accessible. What can be reached, even with cost-is-no-object road-building programs, is just a fraction of the 3.1 million acres. It is this fact that timber industry spokesmen refer to when they pooh-pooh the fears of what they always call "special-interest" environmentalists by saying that "15 million of the 17 million acres of the Tongass will never be logged."

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