PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND, ALASKA — THE Sitka spruce that rose up from the carpet of ferns and berry-laden bushes here are gone. Whole mountainsides of the hardwood trees in Tongass National Forest have been cleared and shipped south in the past 60 years. Left in the wake of Alaska's latter-day Paul Bunyons are swaths of western hemlock, a trash tree for loggers and an inhospitable home for the local fauna.
Once an old-growth forest has been clearcut, says Dave Person of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, there's little one can do to coax the animals back. ``You don't see much forage for wildlife here,'' says Mr. Person, noting the sparse undergrowth. ``This is the future.''
For Person and US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, Prince of Wales Island is ground-zero in the fight to preserve Tongass, the largest national forest in the US. Each day scientists race to beat loggers to old-growth sites, where they count and track animals pushed into ever-shrinking habitats.
Tongass is also a key battleground in the nationwide debate over the use of public lands. On one side are logging businesses wanting to make use of valuable natural resources. On the other are ecologists hoping to preserve endangered species and habitats.
The first salvo was fired in 1992, when the Forest Service listed the Alexander Archipelago wolf, the Queen Charlotte goshawk, and seven other wildlife species, including brown bears, river otters, and owls, at risk at current logging rates.
The report, initially suppressed by Bush-era Forest Service higher-ups, has largely been embraced by their Clinton administration successors. The result was a Forest Service proposal issued in September to establish preserved ``habitat conservation areas'' in the forest ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 acres and setting up no-logging buffers around known goshawk nesting sites.
But industry officials and pro-logging Alaska politicians scoff at the idea that such buffers are needed for animal species not yet listed as endangered or threatened. They say such a measures would mean the loss of a third of available harvest land.
``The no-harvest zones are not to protect the unthreatened and unendangered wolf or goshawk; ... they are ... efforts to end logging, and a way of life, in Southeast Alaska,'' US Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska wrote recently in the Anchorage Daily News.
The Forest Service has disappointed environmentalists by allowing a controversial multiyear, 267-million board-feet sale in central Prince of Wales Island to go forward. Thanks to environmental restrictions already in place, though, only 10 percent of the 17 million-acre Tongass will ever be available for logging - far less than was promised to logging companies. Logging supporters emphasize improvements in logging practices which spur forest regeneration.
The southerly location and gentler slopes of Prince of Wales Island, off the southeastern tip of Alaska, produce more high-value timber than the colder, more mountainous and more forbidding northern Tongass. The island is the most heavily logged part of the rain forest.
But for the climate and geology also make the 1.4 million-acre island a perfect habitat for wildlife. In the competition with man, Person says, the wolf and and other vulnerable species have been pushed into shrinking old-growth ghettos.
To Person, the ravages of clearcuts are obvious.
* New plants crop up that are the nutritional equivalent of junk food for animals.
* Snow cover increases in the winter, causing more work for foraging animals.
* Heavy rains spur mudslides on clearcut hills.
* Two or three decades after the cut, the next generation of trees creates a thick canopy that smothers plant diversity.
Troy Reinhart, spokesman for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., argues that some of the wildlife-preservation goals are too expensive for society - especially after environmental restrictions already have shut down logging operations farther south.
``It's whose side are you willing to conserve on? Is it working people and people who have families, or is it some slug and you want to make sure the slug survives?'' said Mr. Reinhart, a former forest ranger.
As for the Queen Charlotte goshawk, he argues that the Pacific forest is vast enough to sustain some habitat loss. ``If the Tongass is on the northern fringe of the goshawk range, is it really a big deal?'' he asked.
But one biologist working in the Tongass says more than goshawks or wolves are at stake.
``It's very easy to pick them off one by one and say, `We can do without that one,''' said Matt Kirchoff, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist. ``They represent more than the value of the goshawk itself.... These are indicators [of] the health of the whole ecosystem.''
While industry fears the Queen Charlotte goshawk will become ``the spotted owl of southeast Alaska,'' a federal environmental official says new protections will prevent that scenario.
``The idea that there shouldn't be any changes in timber management until you have listed species is what caused the Pacific Northwest forest to end up in the caretakership of the federal court for the last five years,'' Assistant Interior Secretary George Frampton says. ``We should be looking at habitat needs now.''
* First of two articles.