Tongass timber and the roadless rule

Timber was not a lucrative industry in early Alaskan history. A few small-scale logging companies operated in the southeast wilderness, and when Tongass National Forest was established most of them were able to continue their modest production. These small businesses’ downfall didn't come from the Park Service or USDA or conservationists, but from other loggers: In 1954 and 1959, Ketchikan Pulp Company and Alaska Lumber & Pulp Company opened, wielding 50-year contracts to harvest billions of board feet of timber from the area, dramatically dropping the market price for wood and putting smaller companies quickly out of business. With better equipment and financial support, larger forestry operations were able to slice road systems into mountain sides and access what smaller companies had no chance of retrieving: the Tongass old growth.

Naturalist from the Lindblad-National Geographic Sea Lion, Carlos Navarro, admires a stand of Sitka spruce near Cascade Creek.

What distinguishes old growth forest from regenerated woodlands isn't necessarily the age (from 150 to 1,000 years old, in places) but the unique forest structure it hosts: Sitka spruce and western hemlock of impressive diameter and height dominate the dripping canopy of unlogged areas. The shade cast by their moss-burdened branches is only cracked when one of the giant trees fall, creating a gap of light which gives long-patient seedlings their chance to sprout and race toward the sky. There are trees of all ages and size, and the diverse array of vegetation on the forest floor is disturbed only by the well-worn paths of lumbering brown bear. Clear streams rush through granite and limestone; the homes of some of the nation's most productive salmon runs. Sloping up toward snow-capped peaks and down to rocky shores, the Tongass forest is still intact in most places. But riding along many channels in the southeast, evidence of recent denudation in the landscape is unavoidable; roughly rectangular patches of light green contrast the moss-colored blanket of forest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, logging has only removed 7% of productive old growth by this point, but 23% more is scheduled to be extracted in the next 15 years. And that 23% will likely be chosen to include the most productive regions of forest--areas that are remote and difficult to access. Areas that require roads.

A trail of tourists are welcomed into a stand near Lake Eva by a seven foot diameter Sitka spruce.

By the mid-1970's the timber industry began to wane, and in the 1980's both Ketchikan Pulp Company and Alaska Lumber & Pulp Company began facing tougher environmental policies. Although legally protected by their contracts with the Forest Service, their operations struggled; the demand for the Tongass' spruce had declined, while extraction remained labor-intensive and costly. There was little to no market for spruce within the Lower 48, and Alaska's long-time buyer of lumber, Japan, was moving away from wood-based housing. Profits became slimmer as a national movement against clear cutting gained momentum, causing both Ketchikan and Alaska Lumber and Pulp Companies to close by 1997, never finishing their 50-year contracts.

A line of alders careen over a re-purposed logging road on Chichagof Island, stretching to catch all available light.

The "Roadless Area Conservation" rule, put in place by the USDA in 2001, disallows construction of any new road system in National Forest land and effectively makes it impossible for companies to extract new resources that aren't already accessible. Such was the case for Alaskan old growth. Contended since the year it was established, the Roadless Rule has been litigated back and forth in Alaska for nearly two decades: In 2003, Alaska's Tongass forest was granted an eight-year “temporary” exemption from the rule, before it was reinstated officially in March 2011. By June, Alaskan representatives challenged the decision with a repeal (that failed in 2013.) Three more legal disputes ensued over the next four years, the most recent ending in 2017 with the Roadless Rule still intact.

A spruce by the chichagof shoreline, weighted with moss

The Roadless Rule is so fiercely debated because it’s influence reaches further than just the timber industry, affecting mining, fishing, tourism, and recreation throughout southeast Alaska. Conservationists, including EarthJustice attorney Holly Harris, fight so passionately for the rule because they believe its abolishment would destroy valuable ecosystems while hurting the southeast’s economy:

“The protection of old-growth forests in the wildlands of Southeast Alaska is essential for the region’s tourism, recreation and fishing industries, which account for more than 35 times the number of jobs than the small but destructive timber industry. Allowing logging in these wildlands will make a bad situation worse. U.S. taxpayers are already being forced to pay millions for an industrial logging program that contributes less than 1 percent in total employment-related earnings to the region.” -Holly Harris, EarthJustice Attorney

Mary Lou Blakeslee, Naturalist guide for the National Geographic Sea Lion, discerns what Chichagof Island animal peeled away these alders' bark.

Timber or no, the economy is struggling. Forestry provided dependable income for isolated communities of southeast Alaska for nearly 40 years, and now that industrial jobs are scarce many point to logging again as a solution--including Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), current Senators of Alaska.

“Recreation, tourism, and forest products can and must coexist for us to have thriving and healthy communities. This is not only a matter of federal funding, but also reasonable access to resources and a real understanding of local communities’ needs and opportunities. Although we haven’t seen enough of this in recent years, I am confident this new administration will head in a better direction.” -Lisa Murkowski, 2017

the twisted trunk of a fallen spruce

“I really appreciate the invitation to be on the ground here, really to talk to the citizens. They want the same things that most Americans want. They want hope for the future, and that involves working forests - whether it’s working in the recreation business, outfitter business, tourism business and servicing all those needs, or working in the timber business... We think it can be done frankly without jeopardizing the growth of any type of other industry - recreational, fishing, or anything else. We don’t, I don’t believe these are mutually exclusive.” -Sonny Perdue

Murkowski has been fighting against the Roadless Rule for years alongside Sullivan and Rep. Don Young (R-AK), and their efforts have finally found legal favor. On August 2 of this year, the Forest Service signed a “memorandum of understanding,” for the development of a state-specific Roadless Rule; one month after U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited Murkowski and showed support for her opposition to the Roadless Rule.

Naturalist Doug Gualtieri points Sea Lion guests in the direction of an interesting shorebird in Pavlof Harbor.

Alaska won’t be the first exception to the Roadless Rule (there are state-specific versions for both Idaho and Colorado) but there is no certainty about how Alaska’s version will take shape. According to Chris French, the Associate Deputy Chief at National Forest Systems, the rule could range from a full implementation to a full exemption.

A public advisory panel will be created to provide feedback for the USDA and the state government as they create a framework for the new rule. “The State of Alaska is ready to begin this work. I am confident that state and federal officials will be responsive to input from local residents every step of the way and that together we will account for the diverse needs of people who live, work, and recreate in the forest,” said Governor Bill Walker on the subject.

A waterfall rushes through a fault in ford's terror

Environmental groups like SEACC have long argued against the economic viability of cutting the Tongass. They believe that transportation through the terrain is too difficult, while the market price of Sitka spruce is too low. Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research organization, who has estimated that the timber industry in the Tongass costs taxpayers $20 million a year, or approximately $130,000 for each timber job. In 2011, the president of the Tongass Conservation Society touched on this in her response to Murkowski and Young's then attempt to repeal the rule:

“These are our public lands and we should have a say in how they are managed. The American taxpayer will not only lose a national treasure, but will have to foot the bill for timber subsidies. It’s ridiculous.” -Carol Cairnes, President of TCS

tourists search for sea lions along the shores of tongass National forest.

Some Alaskan towns are already looking away from timber--including the city of Hoonah. Settled on the northeast corner of Chichagof Island, they, like most of Alaska, relied heavily on timber from the 1970's to the 1990's. But as residents watched the industry decline before the turn of the century, the town shifted their economic focus toward tourism. Now Hoonah hosts a nationally recognized travel destination, Icy Strait Point, built from the town's old cannery that closed in 1953: They offer guided hikes, whale sightings, zip-line rides, and employ 30% of the town. Although tourism in Alaska is criticized for its inherent seasonality, a local news story went as far to say that tourism has brought the town into an “economic renaissance”.

Naturalist Christine West guides passengers toward Endicott Arm glacier.

Over the next 18 months the proposal will be reviewed by NEPA, Alaskan Native Corporations, and the public through the USDA’s outreach efforts. Still, with 67% of the Tongass on the table for road-access, environmental agencies are gearing up to fight for the new rule to be as conservative as possible. No matter how the rule is shaped, parties will be disappointed. And considering the decades-long effort on both extractors’ and conservationists’ sides of the dispute, it seems likely that this won’t be the end of the Alaskan Roadless Rule controversy.

Created By
Vanessa Moss

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