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IN A RAGE OVER ALASKA TREES
Grizzly bears, salmon, bald eagles and humpback whales live among its islands, peaks and valleys. But trees are the true trademark of Alaska’s vast Tongass National Forest: magnificent, towering stands of old-growth hardwood that form some of the most extensive tracts of virgin temperate rain forest left in North America.
Now these rare giants—some as much as 700 years old and covering an area larger than the Republic of Lithuania—stand at the center of one of the nation’s most heated environmental battles in decades. If the U.S. Forest Service has its way, virtually all commercial logging in more than half of the Tongass will be banned as of April, 2004.
Not all conservationists are pleased with the proposed order—part of a larger nationwide ban that awaits final approval by the outgoing Clinton administration. Some would rather have the prohibition take effect in the Tongass right away, and claim the order contains a major loophole that could lead to further logging.
For their part, Alaska timber officials and their allies in the state’s congressional delegation vociferously maintain that the ban is not needed at all. And they say it would deal a staggering blow to a local industry that already has suffered severe setbacks.
“This is an outrageous exercise of arbitrary decision making,” said U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). “The Forest Service acknowledges that this proposal will have a greater impact on Alaska than anywhere else in the country.”
Alaska Forest Association executive director Jack Phelps complained that the proposal would be the “last bullet in the head” of the state’s floundering timber industry.
ROADLESS AREAS TARGETED
Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) say that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has not yet signed the Forest Service recommendation, but will make a decision before the end of the current administration.
The recommendation would prohibit most commercial logging in nearly 60 million acres (24 million hectares) of roadless national forests throughout the country. Logging would be allowed only for “stewardship purposes,” such as thinning out growth to mitigate wildfires, and improving habitat for wildlife.
Logging activities in national forests where roads exist would not be affected by the order.
Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck compared his agency’s November 13 proposal to the 1907 creation of the National Forest System by Theodore Roosevelt, who set aside 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares) of forestland just before his authority to do so expired. Dombeck noted that Roosevelt’s action, “although unpopular with some at the time, is today viewed as an enduring victory for conservation.” He said that he believed that “future generations will regard this proposal in the same light.”
Pledging to “carefully consider” the plan, Glickman declared that “Our national forests are a precious national environmental treasure that we must preserve for future generations.”
Timber interests and many western-state U.S. congressmen have denounced the proposal as an abuse of government authority and a final “land-grab” by the Clinton White House. A spokesman for Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard called it “a top-down decision by a lame-duck administration.”
However, Tongass did receive a special deal. An earlier draft of the proposal had excluded the Alaska forest from the prohibition on logging in roadless areas, although it would have banned new road construction. Loggers could have conducted operations by helicopter. But a nationwide grass-roots environmental lobbying campaign evidently was a factor in the agency’s decision to include the logging ban in the final recommendation. The delay until 2004—which does not apply to areas outside the Tongass—was specified as a way of helping ease the impact on the local economy.
TOURISM UP, TIMBERING DOWN
Conservationists and logging companies have battled over the Tongass ever since its establishment as a national forest in 1909 through an act of Congress signed by Roosevelt. About one-third of it was designated a national wilderness area in 1980.
The roughly 17-million-acre (6.9-million-hectare) forest, which covers most of the Alaska panhandle in the southeastern part of the state, boasts mountainous islands and rugged coastline indented by fjords. Park Creek on Admiralty Island is prime bear-watching area when the animals congregate to fish for salmon.
Tourism, which has mushroomed in recent years, now ranks third among private employers after commercial and sport fishing. The local timber industry comes in fourth. Some 500,000 tourists arrive on cruise ships in Ketchikan, the major settlement, each summer seeking a taste of wilderness.
Part of the reason for the decline of Alaska logging has been federal environmental policy. Logging on federal lands has been reduced by nearly three-fourths during the past 15 years with the advent of restrictions aimed at protecting imperiled species such as the northern spotted owl. According to the Forest Service, less than 4 percent of all timber harvested on federal lands from 1993 to 1999 came from roadless areas.
FOREST SERVICE FINDS HARM
In the meantime, the Forest Service has become increasingly concerned about other environmental impacts of logging. In a 1997 report developed by government scientists and overseen by an independent professional organization for credibility, the agency declared that road building and clear-cut logging may be damaging the Tongass. The researchers found that landslides were caused by some types of timbering practices. They identified other detrimental effects of timbering on various kinds of wildlife, including fish.
Although logging companies routinely replant areas, critics say the results are not as good for wildlife as the old-growth stands.
An estimated one million acres (404,700 hectares) of the Tongass has been logged since 1954. Under current management policy, 22 percent of the forest now lies in areas open to timbering, though officials estimate that less than 10 percent might be harvested over the next century. Industry advocates argue that this is not an unreasonable amount.
Although conservationists generally hailed the Forest Service’s recommendations, they criticized the delay until 2004 in the Tongass as a way for logging companies to take more bites from the forest. Some also feared that “smart lawyers” might find ways of exploiting the proposed order’s loosely-defined “stewardship” clause to continue harmful practices beyond 2004, especially as the clause may be interpreted by an unfriendly administration in Washington.
Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council declared that the Forest Service has “taken a great step forward, but at the same time they’ve left the door open to serious mischief.”
Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at http://www.earth-info.org.