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Timber, tourism set sights on Tongass

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KETCHIKAN, Alaska - Giant, centuries-old spruce and hemlock line the misty waterways of the Inside Passage. Heard from a boat gliding through the deep blue waters, the whispering of the endless stands of dark green trees, the squawking of birds, the occasional splash of an orca conspire to create a mystical aura here in the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world, and one of the last.

Then, just before the tiny port city, the forest breaks and a hulking brown, treeless hillside comes into view, the aftermath of clear-cut logging.

The contrasting scenery symbolizes the current war of visions about the thick forest that cloaks the islands of the Alaskan panhandle and is prized by environmentalists, loggers and tourists alike.

For environmentalists, "the Tongass has the most at stake of any national forest," said Brian McNitt, spokeman for the Alaska Rainforest Campaign in Sitka, because of its antiquity, its splendor, its richness of animal life and because it is the largest roadless, undeveloped forest in the nation. Of Tongass' 17 million acres, 9.3 million acres of towering trees that first sprouted as long as seven centuries ago have been temporarily placed off-limits.

For loggers, and many of the people who live at the forest's edge, Tongass means jobs, and they are pressing the Bush administration to open up some of those protected acres in a rearguard action to save a threatened industry. The logging harvest here has dropped nearly 70 percent during the past decade as a result of stricter environmental regulations and increasing competition in Asian markets, the traditional destination for Alaskan timber. About 4,000 jobs have disappeared.

"It doesn't do any good to have all this wilderness if you can't utilize it and afford to live here," said Jay Bingham, a taxi driver in Sitka, who figures he lost about $15,000 in wages during the first three years after the pulp mill closed in 1994. "There's got to be a reasonable medium."

In Ketchikan, cruise ship passengers traveling the state's Inside Passage have been drawn into the bitter fight, implored by environmentalists to send postcards to Washington to protest logging's destruction of the scenic vistas. Some 600,000 tourists on 500 ships are due to cruise through the waters that wind through the Tongass. Many profess to be shocked at the clear-cutting - the complete removal of all trees in a tract - so much so that the U.S. Forest Service works hard to keep logging away from the shoreline.

Meanwhile, timber supporters have displayed yellow ribbons in Ketchikan as symbols of an industry held hostage.

Last week, the Bush administration made an interim decision that pleased neither side. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, whose department oversees the national forests, decided to temporarily enforce a sweeping decree issued by President Bill Clinton in the waning days of his administration. Clinton ordered 58.5 million acres nationwide, including Tongass, to be designated roadless forest, enraging logging interests.

However, Veneman said new rules governing roadless areas would be announced next month, and would likely include local hearings to decide the forests' ultimate fate. And the timber industry and state governments have filed a flurry of lawsuits - in Alaska, Idaho and other Western states where the industry is concentrated - aimed at deciding forest use on the local level.

"Local control on the Tongass means back to corporate control for logging here," said McNitt of the Alaska Rainforest campaign. However, Jack Phelps, the outgoing executive director of the pro-logging Alaska Forest Association, said the Bush administration "hasn't made its intentions clear."

As loggers and environmentalists debate, the Forest Service in many ways is caught in the middle, charged with managing lease sales, accused by environmentalists of siding with the timber industry, buffeted by the political changeover in the White House.

In some respects, conflict over the role of the Tongass - whether it should be used as a sustainable economic resource or left as wilderness - is inherent in a congressional mandate to manage forests for multiple uses, including timber, recreation and wildlife.

On a recent morning, Dale Kanen, the Forest Service ranger on Prince of Wales Island, was touring the island, pointing out the difference between the way logging used to be managed and the more environmentally friendly practices today, such as leaving old-growth trees along the banks of a river or stream to protect habitats for bear, deer and aquatic life. The old trees now die naturally and fall in or near a river to create habitat and cover for aquatic creatures.

In the late 1970s, Kanen said, he spoke up against logging, questioning whether clear cuts were providing good animal and marine habitat. In those days, the area had a diversified economy - timber, mining, fishing, tourism. But Ketchikan was "a one-horse town," and the pulp mill was the horse.

"Now it's turned around," he said. "The timber harvest is so little I'm worried that we'll lose it as a component of our economy. There's a potential that logging could disappear completely. I think it's healthy for a diverse economy to maintain some logging. We don't want the one-horse town to be the Holland America Cruise Line."

Long before Ketchikan became a cruise ship destination and tourism evolved into a billion-dollar industry along the Alaskan coast, logging was the backbone of the economy, and is still embedded in the culture.

But logging proponents say the industry will die out if the tall trees of Tongass cannot be harvested.

"The critical piece of all this is - this is the only place where there is commercial timber of sufficient size and volume is in those unroaded areas," said Phelps, who is joining the staff of Alaska's Republican Sen. Frank H. Murkowski as his executive assistant. "Where our roads are is mostly second growth. It's not old enough to harvest." Murkowski is a logging advocate.

Environmentalists counter that logging will irrevocably destroy forests with trees topping 200 feet, which took root before the first European explorers clambered ashore.

"Every time you see one of these log ships leaving the waters here ... that's literally a forest leaving," said Vern Ably, a former logger turned conservationist, walking through a forest of ancient trees one recent morning.

The local pulp mill closed four years ago, eliminating 872 jobs. Overall, in the Tongass region, logging-related jobs have declined from 6,113 in 1990 to 2,059 in 1999, according to Forest Service figures. A new veneer plant is struggling with bankruptcy, and the borough has tapped federal economic development funds to assume most of the debt.

"I agree they've made a mess of the land, but logging does support a lot of families," said Dixie John, whose father and grandfather were loggers, as she played cards with her family in the cafeteria of a ferry plying the Inside Passage. It is one of the boats making up the Alaska Marine Highway System, the only way, other than flying, to travel between the state's southeastern islands.

"A lot of people who loved Alaska had to move away," said John, a pharmacy technician and nurse's assistant at the hospital in Ketchikan. The decrease in logging has "affected the hospital. I see a lot of resentment and anger that's come out of it," she said.

Logging may mean paychecks for some locals, but opponents take a broader economic view. They point out that logging in the Tongass has been subsidized for years by the Forest Service, operating at a loss of $33 million in 1998 - the last year for which figures are available. Much of the subsidy is used to pay for logging roads.

And environmentalists say the largest beneficiaries of logging here have not been Alaskans but companies in Asia, where much of Tongass' timber has been shipped.

"A lot of the locals here don't believe the rest of America should have a say about what happens to the Tongass," said Marcel LaPerriere, a carpenter in Ketchikan who lives on a 55-foot sailboat. He spends much of his time exploring the countryside for archaeologically significant caves.

"They only see the money it brings them and their families. And frankly they don't care that it's costing the rest of America millions in subsidies - and it's shortsighted greed. They'd just as soon have the federal government go away - until they want their subsidies."

In Ketchikan, where about 14,000 people live along a narrow coastal swath pressed against the steep slope of the rain forest, the growth of summer tourism has picked up some of the economic losses.

But locals view this influx as something of a mixed blessing. The 600,000 cruise ship passengers expected this summer - up from 236,000 in 1990 - clog the tiny downtown, don't usually stay overnight in hotels or dine often in restaurants. They do spend money in the shops, but the daytime crowds have become so overwhelming that the city recently considered imposing a $5 head tax on tourists. The measure was defeated.

Many people here said they resent environmentalists for marshaling outsiders - often college students - in their leafleting efforts.

"They don't know what they're talking about," John said. "Half the people who come up here are from Boston and New York."

The push to end logging in the old-growth forests has won some converts among locals. One is Ably, 52, the former logger turned conservationist, who grew up in logging camps in Washington and Oregon, and worked as a logger in Alaska as an adult until he fell on a job site in 1988 and broke his back. He now works as a firefighter and maintenance technician at the Ketchikan airport.

"The last few years of logging I'd walk through some of the old-growth forests, and look at the moss, the little creeks; it's a world all its own. It's very fragile," said Ably, wearing a black beret and thin ponytail, and walking through a part of the Tongass with massive centuries-old trees of the sort that he used to cut.

"Then I'd come back a couple of weeks later, and it was all slaughtered, laying on the ground. It looked like a war zone. Everything was smashed and broken. Little creeks were all plugged up.

"You could try and visualize where you had been, and you couldn't recognize anything. We had loggers bringing mallard ducks and flying squirrels to the house to try and save them. It just made me feel sick. I just knew what we were doing was wrong."

Ably and others who have spoken out against logging have suffered the wrath of fellow townspeople.

Wayne Weihing, 57, who worked at the Ketchikan pulp mill for 21 years until he left in 1989, citing safety concerns, said he received a death threat by phone and had a hard time getting work as a truck driver after testifying before Congress against extending the mill's contract. He avoided public places, such as the post office at shift changes, to escape the glares.

"Let's move on and find some vision for the future, instead of trying to resuscitate a dinosaur," he said. "It's gone."

A short ride on a floatplane from Ketchikan is Prince of Wales Island, which provided much of the timber that went to the Ketchikan pulp mill.

From the air, the island of hills, mountains and steams reveals a procession of clear cuts, as well as new growth and 30-year-old growth, on both federal Forest Service land and land belonging to Native Alaskans.

Unlike many of the other islands in the Alaskan panhandle where people co-exist with a national forest, Prince of Wales also has a network of roads, originally built by timber companies for logging operations, now maintained by the Forest Service for public travel and recreation.

Elsewhere in the region, travel is much more cumbersome - by boat or plane, but Phelps said, "You can actually drive between the towns on Prince of Wales - all made possible by the timber industry."

How harmful clear cuts are to the long-term health of the land and animal habitats is the subject of detailed technical debate between timber supporters and environmentalists.

Environmentalists say that animals such as deer may return when brush starts to grow back, but because the thick canopies of the old-growth trees are gone, the snow gets deep in winter. The deer that have come to forage can't run quickly in the snow and become vulnerable to wolves.

Environmentalists also maintain that after a clear cut, new growth comes back all at once and too evenly, forming a forest too thick to allow sunlight in and permit growth underneath.

But timber supporters say that some animals prefer clear cuts, that new growth returns quickly and the forests that come back too thick are easily thinned.

"We have the ability to enhance the habitat," said Rachael Moreland, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Forest Association, which represents nearly 300 companies in the state forest products industry. "We can and have managed forest stands in ways that will enhance not only the wildlife but the value of the actual trees as products."

Declaring most of Tongass a roadless area would take some of its most valuable trees off the market. But the market has been shrinking steadily for a decade. In 1990, when both pulp mills were operating, Tongass produced 471 million board feet of timber, compared with just 147 million board feet last year. (A board foot is a square foot of timber that is one-inch thick.)

Logging here dates to the 19th century when Alaska was a Russian colony. The Tongass National Forest was created in 1907 and large-scale operations began after World War I when its timber was used for ties on the Alaskan Railroad, but the real heyday came after World War II.

When the mills were in operation, the pulp was shipped principally to Asia, where it was turned into high-end products such as rayon and cellophane. Now, the local forest products are lumber, wood chips and veneer, which are still shipped to Asia and the lower 48 states.

Disaster struck in the mid- to late 1980s, when the price of timber plummeted, and local pulp mills struggled with competition overseas.

In 1994, the Sitka mill shut down, followed by the Ketchikan mill in 1997.

At the same time, environmental restrictions and challenges to industry practices mounted, and the Forest Service began to question the value of building expensive roads for money-losing logging operations.

Moreland, the spokeswoman for the Alaska Forest Association, said that most of the roads built by the Forest Service are also used for recreation after logging operations conclude. "The roads have greatly benefited the public that would like to use and enjoy the forest," she said.

But those roads have to be maintained or else they will erode, harming nearby streams and their marine life. Nationwide, the Forest Service was facing an $8 billion backlog in road maintenance. The agency was also spending a considerable amount of money defending lawsuits filed by environmentalists who wanted to see road building and logging end.

"Folks looked at that and said, 'Does it make sense to keep building when we can't maintain the roads we've got?'" said Mike Weber, a spokesman for the Forest Service in Ketchikan.

In the Tongass, this is the time of year when logging traditionally resumes after a winter hiatus. But in the dark green forests, the only sound is the soft susurrus of the wind sweeping through the spruce and hemlock.

As a result of the Clinton order, Phelps said, "I've got nobody in the woods today. The entire federal [logging] program is shut down."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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