Eagles, sometimes called cannery buzzards by locals when they are twitting Sierra Clubbers, are protected by federal law. Moreover, regulations forbid logging within 330 feet of eagle nests, which are vast affairs built atop huge old shoreside trees. But the frontier mentality occasionally turns septic. Last year, wardens found the carcasses of more than two dozen eagles rotting on the garbage dump of a logging camp on Prince of Wales Island. The birds had been shot by someone who resented regulations or federal officials or eagles. The Forest Service isn't directly responsible for these dead eagles or the lost grizzlies, but some destruction of wildlife is a predictable result of timberland development.
The extent to which logging endangers salmon spawning beds is in dispute, largely because the service maintains that no damage is being done. Bulldozers and skidders once raised havoc by wallowing through spawning gravel, and the logging of steep, unstable slopes once caused erosion, but no more, according to the agency. Problems that once existed are now prevented by new regulations and techniques, or by what the service calls "mitigation." Perhaps, but state fish biologists are doubtful.
Fishermen are doubtful, too, and they stand to lose more than just an argument if the Forest Service doesn't mitigate as well as it says it will. At Pelican, on the Lisianski Inlet, fisherman Reuben Yost, who is a town councilman, says, "You would have to be naive" to believe that the Forest Service could build 21 heavy bridges across the river without fouling the salmon spawning gravel.
As he says this, Yost and most of Pelican's other townspeople are waiting for Forest Service floatplanes to bring in several members of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. The townspeople are proud of Pelican, a bright little village strung along half a mile of boardwalk on the steep side of the inlet, and they should be. Fishing brings in $1 million a year here. Pelican has a fish-freezing plant, a general store, a shipshape array of docks and boats and houses, a medical clinic, a fire station, a new town hall, a school system that can see the town's 50 children through 12th grade, and a bar and grill named Rosie's that can see to them after they graduate.
There are even some pickup trucks, though the boardwalk is the only road, and several have bumper stickers that read I'M PROUD OF MY CONGRESSMAN BOB MRAZEK. As it happens, Mrazek is a Democrat who represents a district in New York. But he has introduced the Tongass Timber Reform Act, a bill that would subject the Forest Service follies in the Tongass to yearly congressional review. Mrazek bumper stickers can be found all over Juneau and Anchorage, too. Representative Young of Alaska must not think this is funny, because he does not accompany the delegation, which includes Mrazek and Mo Udall, the Arizona Democrat who is the chairman of the committee.
The people of Pelican fill the legislative bellies with a good potluck lunch and then fill their ears with arguments that are not those of city environmentalists. Several people take pains to say that they don't like to see crops (trees, in this case) not being put to use but that losing enormous amounts of money to harvest $2 trees doesn't make sense, especially when you lose the deer-hunting and maybe the salmon in the bargain. They don't like the idea of "locking land up" as wilderness, which means a lot of entangling regulations enforced by woodsmen in uniforms, but some wonder if Lisianski Inlet could get wilderness status.
A few days later Ken Roberts, the Forest Service's district supervisor for the Tongass region that encompasses Chichagof Island, announces that the agency intends to put Lisianski up for logging in the five-year period now being planned. Road building has been put on hold to give local people their say. Roberts is a sharp advocate and a patient, polite listener. He seems typical of the service's field-level managers. Giving the public its say, and then patiently and politely ignoring objections, is something they do very well.
They could do their jobs more easily if they were left to manage the forests without interference, but that's not possible. So they listen to both sides. On one side, they will tell you, are the environmental activists—sincere but emotional people who oppose cutting even one tree. On the other are the timber-industry extremists who want to keep their mills going and don't care how they do it. Square in the middle, dispensing reason to the hotheads, is where the Forest Service sees itself.
So from the agency's point of view, the prospect for the Lisianski Inlet is frontier justice—a fair trial followed by a hanging. It is doubtful whether Congress can do anything to stop it. Mrazek's bill (H.R. 1516), which would force yearly congressional review, has 150 cosponsors and probably will pass in the House. If it does, the companion bill to break the 50-year contracts probably will pass as well. The outcome in the Senate is more doubtful, with both of Alaska's senators rolling the pork barrel. One representative handicaps the situation this way: The environmentalists will win either Mrazek's 1516 or the effort to stop the oil companies from grabbing the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. They won't lose both, but they won't win both, either.
That's the way the tree falls in the legislative wilderness.