Tourism, timber set sights on Tongass

Forest: Harvesting the towering trees means jobs for a struggling industry. But protecting them provides a million-dollar view for passing cruise ships.

May 09, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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