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

Ecology of the Tongass

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with author Paul Alaback about the ecology of the Tongass rainforest.


CURWOOD: At the heart of the political debate over the Tongass is, of course, the forest itself. The Tongass is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world, and I spoke with writer Paul Alaback about why this ecosystem is so important.

ALABACK: It's one of the very few places on Earth where we can really understand how do plants and animals interact together in these very large landscapes? You know, we don't really have a control anywhere. We talk about these impacts. We really don't know what were things like originally? Well, in the Tongass, it's still operating the way it always has.

CURWOOD: Paul, from the time I spent in the temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island, very similar to the Tongass, the one thing I noticed is that, well, you can't exactly go hiking because everything that's fallen over is so big. Really, it's more of a climbing expedition than a hiking one.

ALABACK: Well, we often joke about it quite a bit, because people that work in this forest are kind of amazed that they don't have more broken bones and injuries than they do. Because when you walk through the forest, not only is it a dense entanglement, like you said, many falling trees and branches that you have to climb over. But when you walk on the ground, you can't assume that's solid ground. Even though it's got a nice green mat of moss, that might be covering a hole of decayed logs, through which you're going to break soon as you land. And so, it's often, you have to have a lot of determination and a lot of will to move through this forest. It's kind of a tough exercise. You just don't know exactly where you're going to end up.

CURWOOD: So, what kind of animals, then, can thrive under these conditions?

ALABACK: Well, one animal that is very symbolic of this whole northern forest is the Sitka black-tailed deer. This is a very small deer that can hop through this dense jungle. We often think that it cannot reach some of these areas because of the brush, but it's really quite remarkable. It's small and it hops very well through this dense entanglement. It is small, we think, because of the poor nutritional quality of the forage it has. It has these very tough evergreen leaves and twigs that are kind of tough to eke out an existence but that is very symbolic of the forest. And also, you know, this is a marine environment. I mean, that's really the essence of the Tongass. It's the interplay between this very rich marine environment, the shorelines, and these dense forests. And the edge of those shorelines, you have bald eagles, which might occur perhaps one every mile of shoreline. So some of highest density of bald eagles in the world. And grizzly bears, it's absolutely nirvana for grizzly bears, because these dense, thick forests are very thick with huckleberries and currants and other berries, as well as salmon. So we can have as much as one grizzly per square mile, for example, in Northern Admiralty. So, far and away some of the densest grizzly bear populations in the world.

CURWOOD: I've never been to the Tongass, but I've been to Klaquet Sound. It is amazing. You have these huge trees. It's like being inside a cathedral. And how old are they?

ALABACK: Well, they can be quite old. Some of the oldest trees we have. I mean, the broadest definition of sort of rainforest would actually include the redwoods in the south, where you have trees thousands of years old. But even up in the Tongass, way up north, we found cedar trees greater than 1,000 years old.

CURWOOD: And the most amazing plants, aside from the big trees?

ALABACK: Well, some that are just really striking. There's one that is just a real anachronism. You think that you're in Alaska, after all, you're very far north. You're expecting, you know, very diminutive plants just eking out an existence. Well, there is this plant called a skunk cabbage, and it has a leaf that might be as much as two feet wide and six feet tall, a single leaf of this plant. (Curwood laughs) It looks like it's come out of the tropical rainforest. And it has a stinky yellow flower. That's why it's called the skunk cabbage, attracting insects for pollinating. And forms a little puddle right where it grows. And it has a unique ability, actually, to take nutrients out of the soggy soil, which most plants would not have access to. So, that's certainly one of the more remarkable plants.

CURWOOD: And the water, well the water is so clean you can drink it out of some of the lakes there. I've never been able to do that anywhere else on the planet, drink out of the lake and not, you know, have this tummy problem afterwards.

ALABACK: Yes. No, water is certainly one of the key elements of that whole rainforest. Some of the freshest and most abundant water in the world, certainly.

CURWOOD: We have to go, but before we do, I'm wondering if you could read the last paragraph of your essay for us.

ALABACK: Okay. (Flips through pages) Just a second here, let me get to it. "In this rugged, majestic place, where our abuses of the land have been much simpler than in more subdued terrains, it is likely that the forest may be able to teach us the few vital lessons that we need, to be able to adapt to a life that fits this place and time, both for us and for the surrounding forest. Our consciousness of this forest over the past century has tended to depreciate the importance of knowing the intricacies of place and time, as these plants do. It is now up to current generations of Tongass residents to develop a more profound appreciation and understanding of this place. To learn how better heal the wounds of this forest, and more importantly, to demonstrate that we can carve out an existence here that enriches and sustains the complexity of this forest. Not only on our own rushed time scale, but also on that of the giant forest patriarchs, which are the heart of the Tongass."

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

ALABACK: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Paul Alaback's essay, "The Tongass Rainforest: An Elusive Sense of Place and Time," appears in the collection of essays entitled, The Book of the Tongass.



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