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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Reat claw marks, the half-healed scars left by ancient glaciers, run from northwest to southeast across Chichagof Island, which is part of the forested archipelago that sprawls below Glacier Bay and Juneau along the Alaska Panhandle. One of the marks is a narrow, steep-walled slash that nearly cuts the island in half. For 25 miles, over northwest Chichagof, the glacial scar is a fjord called the Lisianski Inlet. Then, where a band of tougher rock resisted the grinding of the ice, this claw mark emerges from below sea level and continues for about six miles as a narrow, heavily wooded upland valley.

That upland valley is part of the huge Tongass National Forest, the last largely untouched rain forest in either of the world's temperate zones. It is a lovely, roadless place, a wilderness in all but official designation. The small, braided channels of the Lisianski River, which runs down the valley floor to the inlet, cut through stands of huge Sitka spruce, ancient trees six to eight feet in diameter near their base that top out at 160 to 175 feet. Stupendous numbers of pink salmon spawn in the Lisianski, which is one of the major producers of Southeast Alaska's $75 million annual salmon catch. So many Dolly Varden char live in this river that to catch a 15-incher on each of half a dozen consecutive casts is too commonplace to bother bragging about.

Enormous Alaska brown bears, outsized coastal grizzlies, rumble about this small valley, eating salmon and getting bigger. Bald eagles patrol the inlet. Sitka black-tailed deer hold conventions here, and for citizens of nearby Pelican (pop. 276)—commercial fishermen stretching their family food budgets through the lean months—a morning of hunting the Lisianski drainage is a trip to the meat market. Hunters in Southeast Alaska are permitted to take six deer a year, and somebody has estimated—maybe exaggerating, maybe not—that 30% of the red meat consumed there is Sitka black-tailed deer.

If you want to see this rare, small valley, don't lollygag. The odds are high that the best of it soon will be scraped bare again. This time the inexorable grinding force will not be a glacier but the Industrial Bank of Japan, with invaluable help from its loyal ally, the U.S. Forest Service.

Alaska is a state unlike any other, and its singularity means that environmental messes there seem exotic, not much related to the ones folks in the Lower 48 create. In the case of the Lisianski woodlands, some of the things that have gone sour, such as a pair of 50-year bargain-basement pulpwood contracts and the $2 value currently assigned to giant 400-year-old trees (more on these matters later), are as Alaskan as the humpback salmon. But the larger part of the blame in this case lies with the chronic malfeasance of the Forest Service, a bureaucratic coral colony that has long since stopped faithfully serving the forests, or even the timber industry. It seems committed to nothing except its own steady growth.

The Forest Service's proposed trashing of the Lisianski Inlet is worth a hard look because it is representative of what is happening in the rest of the country: America's 156 national forests, an invaluable and irreplaceable resource covering 191 million acres, are being mismanaged as tree factories by the Forest Service, the huge and obstinate bureaucracy that is supposed to preserve them (see box, page 86).

Warning: Little that follows makes what is usually thought of as sense. The attack on the Lisianski woodlands and the rest of the Tongass is so hard to comprehend because it is not one of those assaults that's dim-witted from an environmental viewpoint but is drearily justifiable as a short-term dollars-and-cents proposition. No, the proposed wreckage of the Lisianski and the circumstances that surround it are both environmentally destructive and unfathomable from the perspective of straightforward, bottom-line greed. The Forest Service's record in Southeast Alaska and the damage it is still trying to do there are so bizarre that an observer draws back periodically and shakes his head to clear the fog. You don't have to be an environmentalist—just a taxpayer—to ask why the Forest Service is doing this. Where is the gain?

Those are good questions, better than any answers found in a year of traveling and reading and listening to foresters, sawmill operators and environmentalists. Committees in both houses of the U.S. Congress have also investigated the strange, wasteful behavior of the Forest Service in the Tongass. Their answers, too, are more peculiar than convincing. In any case—uh, just a minute....

This writer, who lives in New Hampshire, switches off his computer and picks up his work gloves. He is proceeding simultaneously with two tasks, the construction of this article and the splitting of eight cords of wood to heat his house. Whenever a paragraph seizes up, like the transmission of his old logging truck, he whacks at the woodpile with a splitting maul for half an hour or so, until the fashioning of English prose seems much the easier chore.

The writer works at all of his articles in this way and mentions it here only to establish that he knows firewood, two-by-fours, four-by-eight sheets of?-inch exterior grade plywood and the like all come from trees, but only if someone cuts down the trees. The writer has noticed that his city friends all think that his wood-splitting is worthy and noble, but they invariably wince when he fells a tree. These city friends are tree-huggers, which is exactly what the hard-hatted Tongass timber beasts, with their 36-inch chain saws, call the writer when he goes to Alaska.

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