Decades after many of America's national forests have been tamed into tree farms and campgrounds, the Tongass National Forest stands as a reminder of what wilderness once was. Beneath its 800-year-old stands of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock lurks a mossy hush, a thick, verdant silence.
But even the 17-million-acre crown jewel of the national forest system has not been immune to the demands of the dollar. Years of heavy logging laid bare large swaths of the forest, especially on Prince of Wales Island, where entire hillsides were shaved by clear cuts.
The end of the logging heyday saved the forest but crushed the rest of southeast Alaska, turning massive lumber mills into rusting hulks and leaving timber towns struggling to keep their schools open.
Now, Alaska's congressional delegation is sponsoring legislation to hand over prized sections of the Tongass to a private Alaska Native corporation that has engaged in some of the region's most aggressive clear-cutting campaigns.
Legislation written by Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young would transfer up to 85,000 acres to the Sealaska Corp., an enterprise owned by 20,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian shareholders.
The land exchange would allow Sealaska to complete the settlement it never finalized after the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, opening the way for timber harvesting, tourist lodges and alternative energy projects in a region of rushing salmon streams, azure bays and glacial fiords that many here have come to see as part of the public trust.
Opponents say the legislation is an ill-disguised attempt to evade years of environmental lawsuits and efforts by Democratic administrations to limit logging by privatizing parts of America's first and largest national forest.
"This is corporate welfare," longtime resident Leonard Lein complained at a recent community hearing on the land exchange in the former logging camp of Thorne Bay. "They say they can't make it with the lands they have. Too bad."
Under existing law, Sealaska is required to select its final land settlement out of 327,000 acres previously designated by the federal government. Hardly anyone opposes that.
But corporation officials say much of that land is locked away in roadless areas or too near existing communities.
The new proposal would give Sealaska not only prime forest lands on northern Prince of Wales Island -- much of it already designated for timber harvest by the U.S. Forest Service -- but $60 million worth of roads the Forest Service built over the years to open up the region for logging.
The proposal has drawn fire in a way hardly seen since the early settler days, pitting many of the non-Native homesteaders, fishermen and eco-tourism operators against Native leaders, who say that after decades of outside companies exploiting the Tongass, it is time for Alaska Natives to get more than the leftover lands nobody else wanted.
The debate is over not just the future of the forest, but the ability of Alaska Natives to fully capitalize on the unique land claims settlement that handed over $962.5 million and 44 million acres of land to indigenous people.
"We have a right. Out of the 22 million acres [of our historic lands], we are only asking for 3%. We are asking for a sliver," Sarah Dybdahl, cultural projects coordinator for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, declared at a public hearing last month. "When can we have something good? When can Natives have prime land?"
Sealaska Chief Executive Chris McNeil Jr., a Tlingit who holds a law degree from Stanford University and a master's in political science from Yale University, often points to the 1907 presidential decree that created the Tongass -- with no mention of compensation to those who had inhabited it for thousands of years.
"Those were our lands," McNeil said.
In fact, nearly everyone, including Alaska Natives, has cashed in on the Tongass over the years.
The biggest and best old-growth trees started falling to the chain saw in the 1960s, when a pair of pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan -- armed with lucrative federal contracts -- began chewing through millions of board feet a year.
Then came the historic 1971 settlement with Alaska's Native tribes. Unrestrained by many of the federal environmental regulations that govern public land, the new tribal corporations began mowing down hillsides, often from ridge top to the water's edge. Most of the Native-cut trees bypassed local mills and were exported to Asia, where they would fetch a higher price.
Alarmed at the speed with which the rain forest was being brought to its knees, Congress canceled the pulp company contracts in the 1990s.
Environmental lawsuits, wilderness protections and economics have hampered the Forest Service's attempts to keep even a limited logging program going in the years since. The shift has been dramatic. In 1997, 495 million board feet of timber was cut out of the forest. In recent years, less than 34 million board feet a year has made it to the mills.
Wilderness advocates say the region is beginning to come into its own in a new way with tourism, fishing and small woodworking enterprises -- businesses that thrive on a healthy forest. Gradually, the mills are being retooled for smaller, replenishable trees to wean them from their dependence on the massive, old-growth giants.
Yet nothing so far has been able to overcome the loss of the big chain-saw jobs. Over the last 10 years, logging industry employment has shrunk from 4,000 jobs to barely 450. Towns like Thorne Bay and Craig have lost nearly 20% of their populations. Unemployment in some Native villages approaches 30%.
Sealaska officials say the land exchange would generate 210 new jobs and $23 million in new logging contracts on Prince of Wales Island alone.
More important, they say, the new legislation would allow Alaska Natives in the region to look beyond timber. The legislation calls for handing over to Sealaska about 200 Tlingit and Haida cultural heritage sites and more than 40 "futures" sites all over southeast Alaska -- areas where the company wants to build new tourist lodges and alternative energy facilities for developing biomass and tidal energy projects.
Yet many fear the new Alaska Native economic options will come at the expense of many who have managed to scratch fragile livelihoods out of the small towns and wilderness villages that dot places like Prince of Wales Island and nearby Kosciusco Island.
"A 32,000-acre clear-cut logging operation is going to decimate the . . . island. Clear-cut forests are dead zones," said Myla Poelstra, who owns a small lodge in Edna Bay, a village of barely 50 people on the edge of Kosciusco Island. Sealaska's logging could come within a mile of the village.
In Thorne Bay, residents fear that the small mom-and-pop mills that rely on timber from Forest Service lands will be starved for lumber if Sealaska takes over and exports all the trees, unprocessed, to Asia.
The land transfer could also result in closure of the local Forest Service office in Thorne Bay, a virtual death sentence for a town that was once the biggest logging camp in the world.
"If those 20 jobs go away, down goes Thorne Bay," city administrator Justin Sornsin said at one of a series of public hearings on the legislation called by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in March.
Sealaska insists there will be no more slash-and-run logging; instead, the company is focusing on a carefully managed, long-term forest management program that will allow its woodlands to be harvested lightly and regenerated quickly.
"It's true that in the past we harvested at very large levels, and that was not sustainable," said Jaeleen Araujo, Sealaska's vice president and general counsel. "But we're not harvesting at those levels now. We have the ability to manage a sustainable timber program."
Leslie Isaacs, city administrator in neighboring Klawock and also a Tlingit shareholder of Sealaska, said the corporation's commitment to a long-term timber harvest should not be underestimated.
"This is the first time I've ever heard them talk about a sustainable yield in the forest. About actually having a plan so they could have a sustainable yield," he said. "They never cared before. They never looked that far down the road before."
But conservationists say the magnificent stands of 800-year-old trees cannot be replaced by forests cut every 80 years.
Even some Natives are uneasy about logging the largely unspoiled areas of northern Prince of Wales Island that so many residents, Native and non-Native, depend on for hunting and fishing.
"They've never been Earth-friendly in their logging, period," said Michael Douville, a Tlingit and a member of the City Council in Craig, the largest town on Prince of Wales Island. "By the time they're done with that land, it'll look like the moon."