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The Forest Service's Addiction to Old-growth

As with so many debates, the feud over whether to cut or not to cut in Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest - at 17 million acres, by far the largest woods in the United States - can be distilled to bumper stickers.
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The first time I hunted deer alone in Southeast Alaska, my friend drew me a map leading to a stand of old-growth trees in a river valley. I set off at a trot on a sunny November morning, following a trail along Indian River, which ran heavy with fall rains. I cut through a copse of alders, squished through a muskeg, and ducked into a scrub of salmonberry and devil's club, the rifle barrel snagging on the thorned branches. I emerged on the other side into a fairy tale world of 600-1000 year-old western hemlocks and Sitka spruce - a cathedral of trees rising from a thick, moss-covered forest floor.

I remember slowing my pace, running a palm over the bark, the spruce-like potato chips, and the hemlocks like strips of bacon. Hunkering down beside a spread of winter chanterelle mushrooms, which I nibbled before falling asleep, like Dorothy in her field of poppies.

I awoke in a light rain, disoriented. Clouds curtained the mountains I had used to orient myself. I had no GPS, no compass - and realized that I was utterly lost. I panicked, pacing this way and that, inspecting moss to try and locate north. I found a stream, and followed it back to the salmonberry bushes. I returned to town, wet, deerless, and awed by the universe I had briefly inhabited.

As with so many debates, the feud over whether to cut or not to cut in Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest - at 17 million acres, by far the largest woods in the United States - can be distilled to bumper stickers. On the one hand, you have the environmentalists, with their "I Heart the Tongass" on their Toyotas and Subarus. And on the other, the "Cut Kill Dig Drill" on the Ford F150s and Dodge Rams.

Nevertheless, in Sitka there has been increasing consensus that old-growth timber should be left alone. This is due in large part to memories of when the Starrigavan Valley watershed, just outside of town, was clearcut in the 1960s. Today, a secondary growth of red alder and salmonberry bushes grows in the valley - locals refer to it as "dog-hair forest." The destruction is a continual reminder of how out-of-state logging companies came to town, clearcut, and departed with only a moonscape veined with logging roads, and a few "leave-strips" of old-growth in their wake.

The Forest Service was started in 1905 to protect against rampant logging and grazing. Today, just a small fraction of America's original forests remain; the Tongass contains some of the last existing old-growth. Harvesting it is not profitable, costing billions in subsidies; taxpayers shell out over $3 a board foot to prepare old-growth harvest permits. Still, obsession with cutting down the last of America's virgin forests continues.

In 2003, two former USFS chiefs, Mike Dombeck and Jack Ward Thomas, published a letter arguing, presciently, that old-growth should be preserved for posterity, and that the value of the trees acts as a community resource for "beauty" or "spirituality" far exceeding their monetary value as timber. The chiefs, who share more than a half-century working and meditating on national forest issues, stated: "It is time to declare old-growth off-limits to logging and move on."

In 2011, under pressure from the Secretary of Agriculture's to support its vision for integrated watershed protection, the USFS proposed the Integrated Resource Restoration (IRR) Program, which promised a "sustainable approach" to forestry. While the IRR has been given considerable lip-service, especially when it comes to incorporating community comment, its impact on the ground, as it were, has been negligible.

One needs look no further than the USFS budget for proof. Over the past five years, USFS has invested $8.6 million annually in tourism and recreation, which helps support a billion-dollar tourism industry that provides 10,200 jobs. They have put $7.9 million toward fish and wildlife, which helps support another billion-dollar industry and another 7,200 jobs in Southeast Alaska. Finally, $23.4 million goes annually to timber cutting and roads, a money-losing industry that provides just 107 jobs (these numbers come from the Forest Service). In economic terms, USFS spends $843 per year supporting each tourism job, $1,097 per year per fishing job, and $218,692 per year per timber job.

The scheduled program of work of the USFS also makes a mockery of the word "restoration." Thorne Bay, once the largest logging camp in the world, and quickly gaining traction as a tourist destination to experience Alaskan wildlife, has been put up for timber sale again. Kupreanof Island, near Petersburg, which has historically been hit hard by logging, is hosting the Tonka timber sale.

The Tonka sale deserves a closer look. In 2012, before signing a Record of Decision (ROD) for the Tonka - which calls for cutting 38.5 million board feet of old-growth on Lindenburg Peninsula - the USFS held community meetings in a show of achieving consensus. Extensive clearcuts on Kupreanof Island had already caused a crash in the local deer population, due to a loss of winter habitat. This prompted the City of Petersburg to write a letter, asking the USFS to (1) "provide fish habitat and wildlife protection" and (2) "not further reduce the tree canopy for winter deer habitat."

Following the comments and letter, the USFS signed the ROD in March 2012. One month later, in a stunning act of bad faith, the USFS performed a "change analysis," suddenly providing an additional timber harvest of 137 acres of productive old-growth, and expanding the timber sorting area from five acres to 16, destroying an important wildlife corridor. Additionally, the change analysis revealed 112 streams that were not properly identified during the period of public comment. No environmental impact study was done for this "change analysis," because the USFS ranger deemed that no further analysis was required. This is but one small example of a local community going up against a federal agency that cannot move past its timber-itch.

On the flipside of the issue, environmentalists who have historically been anti-logging should prepare to collaborate with the USFS to form a better policy of forest management. This might include thinning young growth or secondary-growth trees that now cover old-growth clearcuts. Red alder is a wonderful wood for flooring and wainscot. Biofuels are increasingly looked at as an environmentally-conscious and economical method for heating homes. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out how Europeans are turning to US forests as a source for wood in an effort to heat their homes. We should prepare to use secondary growth as a building material, instead of shipping from China.

And the Forest Service, for their part, is capable of working collaboratively. In 2012, alongside the Sitka Conservation Society, a cabin was built in Starrigavan Valley from secondary-growth timber. This structure is now used for recreation, and is run by the Forest Service, with great success.

But this is just a footnote to the larger timber sales.

Before another old-growth sale is proposed, the Secretary must issue a directive that the Tongass is: (1) transitioning out of large-scale old-growth logging within ten years; (2) focusing its future timber program on young-growth forest products and limited old-growth logging designed to support local mill owners that produce value-added forest products; (3) prioritizing support for programs designed to benefit recreation and tourism, which are the areas of greatest economic growth potential in the region. Because this is where the future of the Forest Service lies: in rebuilding the health of forests damaged by clearcuts, and in preserving opportunities for recreation.

Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service founder, built a reputation as a leader who combined an understanding of the science of forestry with sensitivity to public and political opinion. Today, both science and public opinion, at least in Southeast Alaska, argue in favor of preservation of old-growth forest. We've gotten over the Manichean bumper sticker debate; now we're holding our breath as the Forest Service catches up - and hoping some old-growth forest remains by the time they do.

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