Tree cutting by the numbers

Environmentalists try fighting Alaska logging for economic reasons.

Past the whitecaps of Icy Strait, concealed behind a mountain ridge, Floyd Peterson drives his all-terrain vehicle along a remote logging road in America's largest national forest.

He suddenly stops and shakes his head. Beside the road is a swath of ancient spruce and hemlock recently felled by a logging company and then left to rot. "Look at this waste," says Mr. Peterson, a commercial fisherman from nearby Hoonah and the son of a Tlingit Indian. "It makes you sick ... to know the Forest Service is promoting more logging while it allows this to happen."

The 400,000 board feet of logs - enough wood to build 25 homes - was abandoned by Whitestone Southeast Logging Inc. because it wasn't considered commercially profitable to haul out. The economics didn't work, even though the Forest Service spent $2 million preparing the timber sale, offering centuries-old trees to Whitestone for only $4 each and paying the Alaska company to bulldoze a logging road to give access to the forest.

The tale of the "Humpback-Gallagher" timber sale and its aftermath along a rutted road here is adding a new dimension to one of the oldest - and most volatile - forest debates in the United States.

For years, environmentalists have fought logging in the Tongass National Forest largely for ecological reasons. At 17 million acres, it is not only the largest but one of the most diverse rain forests in the country. Yet now activists are increasingly fighting logging in the coniferous expanse on the grounds that it isn't economical - an argument that is already appealing to some free-market Republicans - setting up a new collision with the Bush administration over forest policies.

Environmentalists argue that it isn't worth it for taxpayers to subsidize the timber prices and pay for building logging roads when the companies can't afford to sell the wood anyway. "The bottom line is the bottom line," says Tim Bristol, a strategist with the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group. "Building new roads and logging untouched portions of the Tongass doesn't add up or make sense."

This new twist to the decades-old Tongass debate was evident on Capitol Hill this week. Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio attached an amendment to an Interior Department appropriations bill that would forbid the Forest Service from spending tax dollars subsidizing the construction of logging roads in the Tongass.

Mr. Chabot's amendment set off a contentious floor debate. Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, a longtime logging supporter, called it "ill thought out, ill conceived, and wrong, totally." Yet with 47 Republicans joining Chabot and breaking ranks with the powerful Mr. Young, the measure passed 220 to 205, threatening the Bush administration's plans to expand subsidized logging.

Anatomy of a forest

Often referred to as the "forest of islands," the Tongass stretches for 500 miles along the Pacific coast, encompassing everything from volcanic uplands to glacial fiords. In fact, two thirds of the its terrain is classified as "rocks and ice" - in other words, it's land where trees don't grow. Over the past 50 years, most of the largest old-growth trees have been harvested, leaving those that remain all the more coveted. About 600,000 acres of the Tongass have been identified as holding valuable timber, half of it in "roadless areas."

According to the latest available statistics, the Forest Service spent nearly $36 million in 2002 preparing timber sales that generated only $1.2 million in revenue, while supporting 197 direct timber jobs. Mr. Bristol says that translates to a taxpayer subsidy of about $178,000 per job, which both Chabot and the conservative National Taxpayer's Union called a waste of money.

Some conservation-minded companies are opposing logging in the Tongass as well. The heads of nearly 100 US businesses - including Patagonia, Black Diamond, and Outward Bound - recently sent an open letter to Congress asking that roadless areas in the Tongass be left alone. The areas were protected under the Clinton administration but have been reopened to logging by the Bush White House. In the letter, the companies suggested that ancient trees are more valuable as wildlife habitat and tourism attractions than as cheap timber.

Still, others think that argument is misplaced. Dennis Neill, a spokesman for the Tongass, says that while the debate over subsidized logging has resonance, national forest timber management was never designed to make money. The timber supply creates jobs at family-owned sawmills and has an important trickledown effect in rural Alaska. Logging roads also deliver other benefits, such as recreational access.

Mr. Neill adds that complying with federal environmental regulations is costly. Last year, 80 million board feet (mbf) of timber was offered by the Tongass, but only 50 million was sent to mills. Neill says that if legal challenges are cleared, 150 mbf could be harvested next year. The wood products industry hopes the cut will increase to 250 to 350 mbf annually, which is at least five times what critics say can be cut without jeopardizing the forest's character.

The importance of harvesting

Rollo Pool, executive director of the Southeast Conference, a timber lobbying group, says environmentalists are exaggerating the size of the subsidy and the impacts of logging. Both Mr. Pool and Neill point out that most of the timber used in Alaska's building industry is imported from the Lower 48 or Canada. The revised Tongass timber plan, which calls for "adaptive management" in response to environmental concerns, is aimed at producing locally cut timber.

But conservationists counter that several current timber sales have attracted no bidders because of cheap wood from Canada and Russia.

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