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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tongass Logging Roads

Air Date: Week of

In Alaska there’s debate over protecting the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest, from further logging. President Clinton has yet to weigh in on whether or not he’ll allow any new logging road construction there. Johanna Eurich reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Much of the nation's wildest public lands are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under laws that encourage timber cutting. Recently, President Clinton has been trying to blunt that logging mandate by making it difficult, if not impossible, to build logging roads. That is, in just about every national forest except the rarest one, the temperate rainforest in southern Alaska called the Tongass. The 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest, stretches the entire thousand-mile length of the southeastern Alaskan coast, and more than nine million acres of it are still roadless. But so far, President Clinton has not said whether the Tongass will be off limits to new logging road construction. Johanna Eurich has our report from the region.

(Jet engines)

EURICH: To understand the significance of the Tongass National Forest, all one has to do is look out the window of a jet. It takes about two hours to fly over it. From 30,000 feet there are vast, unbroken stretches of old growth. But there are sections where the fabric of the forest has been torn. On parts of Prince of Wales Island in the southern Tongass, roads string together a tapestry of clearcut so extensive, only the tops of the mountains remain unlogged.

(Jet engines continue)

EURICH: The jet lands in Ketchikan, which calls itself "Alaska's Gateway City." Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski used to be a banker here. President Clinton's proposal to preserve the roadless areas in national forests has few fans here. Murkowski and the rest of the powerful Alaska congressional delegation oppose the initiative, especially if it includes the Tongass.

MURKOWSKI: We're going to have to continue to fight particularly with this administration, because they're very insensitive to the needs of developing Alaska's resources.

EURICH: Ketchikan has been the center of Alaska's timber industry since the 50’s, when Louisiana Pacific built a huge mill, turning vast sections of the forest into pulp to make everything from diapers to plastic. During 40 years of operation, that mill and another in Sitka used almost half of the Tongass's available timber. That era is gone. The pulp mills are closed. The Ketchikan Pulp Company shut its doors just two years ago. Since then, the Tongass timber industry has been trying to reinvent itself, to do more with less. It's no longer politically acceptable to cut trees and ship them out as pulp and logs, but industry says it still needs access to the forest and new roads. Three managers of the former pulp mill have formed a company to build a veneer plant. Calling themselves Gateway Forest Products, they've bought the old mill site and secured nine million dollars in public financing. Richard Leary , executive vice president of the new company, worries the roadless initiative might reduce the timber flow. He needs 65 to 75 million board feet a year from the Tongass.

LEARY: The Tongass is one of the best-managed forests where wilderness and roadless areas are incorporated into the Tongass land management plan, which took over ten years to do. So, are we going to throw out an investment of that much money and that much time overnight?

(Engines, beeps, sawmill sounds)

EURICH: Just across the Tongass narrows sits the Seely saw mill, a midsize operation. Wading through mud and sawdust, surrounded by the redolent smell of pitch, workers stack logs, many over three feet in diameter, before running them through huge machines to produce lumber and chips.

SEELY: I've got a good example to show you right here. Ten years ago, this log would have never gone to the sawmill.

EURICH: Steve Seely plans to build a kiln to dry the wood, and sell it within the state. He envisions an integrated industry to squeeze the highest value out of the whole forest. The fear the administration might shrink the woodpile further has prompted him to put his kiln on hold.

SEELY: This is just a far-sweeping move that has scared the daylights out of us. We're making, we've got every dime invested that we can. We're scared. If we borrow money, we have to pay it back.

EURICH: Local environmentalists support Seely's operation. However, they disagree over the roadless initiative. Mark Wheeler with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council points to 4,500 miles of road already built in the forest.

WHEELER: We think there's enough timber on the existing roads to support a small-scale, high-value-added timber industry that provides adequate jobs for Alaskans but doesn't go in and wreck all these pristine areas.

EURICH: Mike Salee, who operates a tiny one-man sawmill, doesn't need roads to get his lumber. He harvests trees washed on shore and blown down at the forest edge. He wants the Tongass included in the roadless initiative because he's tired of seeing the woods he grew up in cut and carted away.

SALEE: What good are jobs if the area that you're living in is being destroyed? Enough is enough.

EURICH: Salee is a member of the local assembly. His perspective lost, in a recent vote, when the body came out opposed to including the Tongass in the initiative. Further north, in Juneau, during a meeting on the president's plan, opinions were divided. Southeast fishermen broke ranks with environmentalists and announced they did not support including the Tongass. Kathy Hanson of the United Southeast Alaska Gilnetters Association.

HANSON: The consensus of our membership meeting was that the federal government should have no more interference on the Tongass.

EURICH: But some Alaskans remind their neighbors that the Tongass belongs to the whole country. At the Juneau meeting, those in favor of additional protections for the Tongass outnumbered those opposed.

(Splashing water)

EURICH: In Tenakee, just 15 minutes away from Juneau by float plane, the 80 full-time residents here have waged a three-decade-long battle to keep the Forest Service road system away from their town. Dan Kennedy, a ten-year resident.

KENNEDY: This is one of the last few towns that doesn't have vehicles, and we don't want them. (Laughs)

(Splashes, gulls call)

EURICH: In Tenakee, the forest comes right into town, a collection of tiny nineteenth-century clapboard buildings built on pilings. Many residents, like Sam McBean, a retired fishing guide, worry about the rate of timber cutting. If the initiative will help protect his neighborhood, he'll support it. From his cabin, he points across Tenakee Inlet.

MCBEAN: There's a sale coming up just across the inlet from us, right out our window. It's going to cause most of that hillside we're looking at to be clear-cut.

EURICH: While he speaks, whales breach and spout in the water. Molly Kemp, a friend, joins him at the window.

KEMP: I feel, you know, uniquely fortunate to have this remnant of what this whole continent was like. So much has been cut already. So much is already committed to that path that we feel it's worth the effort to hang onto whatever is left, as much as we can, for as long as we can.

EURICH: Comments on Clinton's roadless initiative are due by December twentieth. The draft recommendations are expected in spring. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens tried and failed to derail the plan in the recent budget battle, but the fight may not be over. The delegation is pressing Alaska's governor to file suit challenging the roadless initiative. For Living on Earth in Tenakee, Alaska, I'm Johanna Eurich.



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