Into the woods/Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Where the Indian River forked, I stepped off of the established trail and went deeper into the woods, following the left branch of the river upstream.

It was late June, and the air was warm and heady with the earthy smell of furiously growing summer flora. Berry bushes sagged with the weight of their fruit. My hiking partner pointed out that the salmonberries – tinted orange and bright as Christmas tree lights – were ripe. As we marched through the spongy duff and clambered over fallen trees, I popped berries in my mouth, savoring the tart flavor with every step.

Signs of brown bears appeared regularly: piles of scat full of berry seeds, tufts of fur stuck in bark, and long, raking claw marks on a downed hemlock. I crossed a muskeg bog, stepping in the holes left by bear paws coming down in exactly the same place, year after year. A full-grown brown bear can weigh more than a half ton. My boots fit into their pie tin-sized prints with room to spare.

The bear trail led us into a grove where some of the trees stood as tall as 20-story buildings. The biggest ones would have already been imposing when Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on the New World. The trees stood like columns in a grand cathedral, holding up the sky itself. The area under their canopy was open and airy, carpeted by ferns, moss and the four-petaled, white blooms of bunchberry dogwood.

“Look at this! This stand has been growing uninterrupted for at least 2,000 years, and it’s more organized than anything the Forest Service can arrange,” said Kenyon Fields, director of the Sitka Conservation Society. “This is what’s at the heart of the fight over the Tongass.”

The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States, an area of islands and coast as big as West Virginia. Most of it is mountains, glaciers and scrub. But in the valleys, there are the precious trees; one-fourth of the world’s remaining temperate rain forest grows there.

If Americans could drive to the Tongass, it would be as famous as the Grand Canyon. Its beauty is unsurpassed. But the Tongass is cut off by distance, forbidding mountains and the ocean. To get there, you have to float or fly. These are also the obstructions that left it mostly undeveloped, the last significant old-growth forest in America.

The Tongass runs 500 miles north to south; it’s a landscape so big, so forbidding, and so scattered among islands and fjords that seeing it all would be a lifetime commitment. I had a week. I used Sitka, on Baranof Island, as a base for exploring the Tongass. It’s a small town, but all of the elements in the debate over the forest can be found on its streets and in its history.

Sitka started out as a Tlingit Indian village. The tribe has a rich material culture; they lived in massive wooden houses built with fragrant cedar and straight-grained spruce. They hunted on the sea in sturdy ocean-going canoes. They made colorful clothes from cedar bark, feathers and leather.

Russia was the first European power to stake a claim on Alaska, and, after a couple of bloody battles, Sitka became one of its fur-trade outposts in 1804. Vestiges of Russian occupation persist, most visibly in the onion-shaped dome of St. Michael’s, the Russian Orthodox church that presides over Sitka’s main drag, Lincoln Street. In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to America. In the 1950s, the population blossomed with the construction of an industrial pulp mill, which ground logs into cellulose and provided steady, high-paying jobs. In the 1970s, the environmental movement came to the Tongass, with some success, and in the late ‘80s, the timber economy shifted. Sitka’s pulp mill closed in 1993.

At the same time that logging hit the skids in southeast Alaska, tourism took off. The number of cruise passengers quadrupled between 1990 and 2004. The jobs available in southeast Alaska neatly reflect that. At the peak of logging, about 4,000 people worked for the timber companies. Now about 430 do. Once, only a few hundred people catered to tourists. Now more than 5,000 do. In the summer, on days when several ships are in port, Sitka’s population of 8,800 nearly doubles, and the police have to close Lincoln Street to cars because all the cruise passengers don’t fit on the sidewalks.

Sitka is the only town on Baranof Island, which is about 100 miles long. I only had to walk a half-hour to get into the woods, where signs warn visitors to make noise so as not to surprise the bears. During the week I was there, I hiked many miles on forest and alpine trails, I went on a whale-watching cruise and saw humpbacks heaving themselves into the air with joyful abandon and I admired the totem poles at Sitka National Historical Park. But I didn’t have to go anywhere to enjoy the Tongass. Even sitting on a bench by the harbor, I could see bald eagles fish, seals play and the endless summer sun shining on the snow-capped mountains beyond the bay.

But you can’t be in Sitka and not encounter the ongoing tension over the Tongass. Passions run deep. There are those who believe no more trees should be cut, and those who believe logging can be sustained for years to come. People like Kenyon Fields, the conservation firebrand who took me hiking, and Scott Fitzwilliams, who is one of the top administrators in the Forest Service, see each other on the street every day. Their offices are only a few blocks apart.

Listening to them it becomes clear that the arguments over the Tongass have become more nuanced than tree huggers vs. tree cutters. Both sides now agree that the ecosystem must be protected – for economic reasons as much as anything else. But they disagree on how much damage 50 years of clear-cutting has done, and how to proceed from here.

I met Fitzwilliams, an eloquent defender of Forest Service policies, on the docks at the marina. He’d taken off a Friday morning to go fishing. He was wearing orange rubber bib overalls, and he was gutting and cleaning six 20-pound king salmon on a steel table built onto the dock for that purpose. In the water a few feet away, a Stellar’s sea lion swam back and forth with its own king salmon clamped in its jaws. Periodically, the sea lion would throw the fish 15 feet into the air, watch it hit the water with a loud slap, bark like a happy dog, then repeat the process.

“Look at this!” Fitzwilliams said, indicating his bountiful catch and the rambunctious sea lion. “You can see how amazing this fishery is. There’s nothing like this left anywhere.”

As he cleaned his fish and tucked the bright orange filets into a waiting cooler, he said he welcomes healthy debate on the meaning of the Tongass and the value of wilderness vs. the value of resources.

“It’s a national issue and it’s not going to go away,” he said. “This is the last great place. Every day as the world shrinks and the population grows and the temperatures rise, a place like the Tongass becomes more and more crucial to the world’s ecological future. It still has fish, clean air, clean water.

“But the world at 6.5 billion people can’t afford to put every wild ecosystem into park or wild lands. The key is conservation. Use the resources, but still maintain the huge biosphere we have in the Tongass.”

Fitzwilliams said that the Forest Service has made dramatic changes in the way it manages the Tongass to accommodate the rising number of tourists while still feeding the timber companies. I mentioned to Fitzwilliams that Fields believes too much old growth has been cut already, damaging the ecosystem.

“Where’s the disaster?” he asked. “The bear population is good, the salmon runs are healthy, the deer population is good. Our indicator species are not showing we’ve messed up so bad.

“Some of these arguments are stale,” he said. “Eight years ago, we were cutting 400 million board feet of timber a year. Now it’s 70 million. Had we said eight years ago we’re going to cut 70 million board feet, Kenyon and the others would have hugged and kissed us. Now they still make us out to be the devil.”

Actually, Fields didn’t go that far, but he believes fervently that continued clear-cutting is wrongheaded, and that one of the most persuasive arguments against it is in the forest itself, which is why he led me into a stand of pristine old-growth timber just a few hours’ walk from his office in downtown Sitka.

“When people actually see what’s here, they wonder why we would be cutting it down,” he said. “The first day I walked into the temperate rain forest, I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to study this place, then work to protect it.”

Fields did just that, studying forest biology and working for a year as a staff naturalist for the Forest Service in the Tongass before joining the Sitka Conservation Society.

Fields put his hand on the trunk of a magnificent spruce, 10 feet across at the base and 150 feet tall. “You can see why a logger would lust after this,” he said. “Perfectly straight, tight grain, no limbs for 75 feet. There wouldn’t be a knot in there. It’s the kind of wood that should be used to make a $2,000 Gibson guitar. Instead, it would be sold at a loss and sent whole to Asia.”

Fields said that the oldest, densest stands of old growth – which also happened to be the easiest to get to – have already been cut, and that what’s left is too rare to cut down.

“They paint us as radicals and extremists,” he said, “but to me, the most conservative thing we can do is to consider what we should save for our kids. Trees like this don’t grow back in one lifetime.”

Besides, he said, cutting these trees down doesn’t make economic sense. The old-growth ecosystem is critical to producing the things tourists come to enjoy: an abundance of bears, deer and salmon. “They should be putting their money where the economy is going,” he said, “into trails and law enforcement.”

One day, the Forest Service had an open seat on a four-passenger float plane, taking a staff officer to a meeting in the Tlingit community of Angoon on Admiralty Island. It gave me an opportunity to see the forest from the air.

In a small plane, with just a thin sheet of aluminum between my feet and a long fall, I really felt like I was flying. The engine’s loud hum filled my ears. Raggedy clouds tangled in the treetops. Periodically we’d fly through one. The vapor covered the windshield of the plane like cotton batting and slipped away in the wind.

This forest cannot be rendered simply. One mountainside was densely thicketed with green spires, and next to it a valley had been sheared to a field of stumps, with a lonely road winding through the middle of them. A muskeg bog appeared as a Japanese garden, with stunted bonsai trees, circular ponds and moss-covered boulders. In the Chatham Strait, a passenger ship trailed a V-shaped wake, and there, the pilot pointed, was a humpback whale, clearly outlined at the surface for a second, then diving with its tail held aloft.

Even from that altitude, through clouds and rain, one thing was clear. The Tongass is one of the last places in the United States where we can ask the question, “What is the value of wilderness?” and still have time to answer it.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune. June 11, 2005