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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The only trees of interest to pulp or sawlog operations are the old-growth giants in stands that produce at least 30,000 board feet per acre. Today, after some 30 years of logging, perhaps 640,000 of these acres are left, of which 486,000 are scheduled for timber harvesting. These enormous old trees shelter grizzlies, deer, pine marten and bald eagles. They shade the spawning beds of salmon. When they die, they topple across streams and create pools for trout.

To say that the animals need the forest is to oversimplify. The great trees and the small ones and mosses and fungi and blueberries and fish and mammals and birds and insects are the forest. The Tongass is many ecosystems fitting together in ways that wildlife biologists are only beginning to understand. But the big trees are the living bones.

A decade or so ago, the term "biological desert" was in vogue in forestry circles. It referred to a supposed condition in which the thick canopy of an old-growth forest shuts off sunlight, so that no smaller plants, and thus no herbivorous animals or carnivores that ate the herbivores, can survive. This notion fit the Forest Service's philosophy, which held that managed forests were good and that unmanaged ones were something close to sinful. Managed forests made better wood factories, so it was thought, because they could be harvested on a rotation schedule, which might be 100 years from seedling to sawlog.

A 100-year rotation is what the Forest Service wants to achieve for the Tongass. Agency planners don't have much use for old-growth forests because, by definition, they aren't managed. It is no accident that the Forest Service is a branch of the Department of Agriculture; woodlands sometimes seem to be regarded as not greatly different from fields of soybeans. Gifford Pinchot, who established the Forest Service in 1905, was a fervent utilitarian and a fervent adversary of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Pinchot believed that the natural world existed for man to use. And "use" did not mean holding a forest in reserve or letting the natural balances of flora and fauna work themselves out. Use meant thinning, reforesting, improving. It meant managing, which in turn meant hiring, devising projects and securing appropriations—the activities of a healthy, swelling bureaucracy.

The differences between managed and unmanaged woods become readily apparent on an hour's walk with Matt Kirchoff, a wildlife biologist for the State of Alaska. We are in a suburb of Juneau called Lemon Creek. Just beyond the last split-level is forest. It looks terrible. Fifteen years ago the forest was cut, and now it has gone back to alder, a scrubby tree that grows so densely that neither man nor deer can force passage through a thicket.

Our cut trail rises, and now we are in old growth that has never been logged. The trees rise 150 feet or more, but sunlight pours through holes in the canopy where 50 or 100 years ago old trees died and fell. Vegetation is everywhere in dozens of varieties, from the low green plants that Kirchoff points out as deer food, to great, hanging chunks of moss, to blood-letting devil's club, to spruce seedlings growing on the half-rotted fallen trunks of nurse trees. Clear water, trout habitat, winds its way down over sandy gravel, dark humus, water plants and a tangle of fallen trees.

Then, in the space of a few feet, we are in near darkness. This tract was clear-cut 45 years ago, and now even-age Sitka spruces have taken over. They are healthy enough, about 50 feet tall, and the biggest trunks are nine inches in diameter. But there is no trace of the alder that must have covered the clear-cut, nor of any other plant. Nothing but spruce needles is on the forest floor. I had taken snapshots in the old growth, but now there is no light for photographs.

And none, of course, to grow fodder. A section of this old clear-cut was thinned about 25 years ago, but the canopy has closed again. This is a biological desert, a one-species eco-vacuum. If the grove isn't touched, no understory will develop until the trees are 150 to 200 years old, when some will begin to die and let in light. According to one Forest Service manager, all the woods at Lemon Creek need is a second "precommercial thinning" to let in enough light for wildlife. This ignores the economic fact that the labor costs of even one thinning far exceed the market value of the trees, and the environmental reality that the complex, wildlife-nurturing understory of an old-growth stand would only have started to re-establish itself by the time the trees were logged.

Does it matter if the Tongass is turned into a tree factory?

At some point, the dwindling supply of old growth will seriously cut into wildlife populations. Those cuts will be permanent, because there is no way—short of waiting several hundred years—to create more old growth. In the meantime, logging and road-building operations put anything shootable in jeopardy. The Tongass has a lot of grizzlies, but not as many as it once had, because of kills necessary to protect life and property, and because of illegal kills by gun toters who like large, dangerous targets. Many Alaskans think that having fewer bears is just fine. Says Sitka mayor Dan Keck, "Logging hasn't hurt those damn bears a bit." But no one really knows because baseline population studies have never been done.

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