Say "Alaska" and most people think ice and snow, polar bears, and a midnight sun. But the panhandle of this vast state, hanging down to the southeast alongside British Columbia, comprises the largest temperate rainforest in the world.
This rich and beautiful archipelago, with its thousands of islands and glacier-etched fjords, its centuries-old trees and abundant wildlife considered endangered elsewhere, is at the center of a high-stakes political fight over its future.
Marking the landscape is evidence of the battle: large patches of clearcuts, some from hilltop to shoreline, totalling nearly 1 million acres.
On one side are loggers, millworkers, and others laboring in the small southeast Alaska communities cut off from the rest of the world except by boat or plane. In their corner is the state's congressional delegation - small in number but powerful in legislative seniority. Backing them are the corporate investors and lobbyists eager to harvest the millions of acres of giant hemlock and sitka spruce.
On the other side are environmentalists and their allies - some in the fishing and tourism industries, wildlife biologists and other natural scientists, and traditional native Americans whose ancestors have been here nearly 10,000 years.
"It's much more than timber," says Gilbert Fred, president of the Tlingit and Hiada Community Council in the native village of Angoon, located on Admiralty Island. "We're fighting for our people's right to live."
An hour or so away by float plane in Ketchikan, where the dominant industry is a sawmill and pulp plant, retired forester Dick Coose says much the same thing: "It's an issue of livelihood around here."
The controversy centers on the Tongass National Forest, which sprawls over most of the area. At nearly 17 million acres, it's bigger than West Virginia and three times larger than the next-largest national forest. In a way, it's the story of the western national forests writ large.
But there are differences - no officially endangered spotted owl-type species to tie things up in court, and a significant number of government agency employees here are willing to speak out against national forest policy. And there is a paradox: Many of the biggest clearcuts that mark the Tongass (named for a clan of Tlingit Indians) have been done by native Americans, typically thought of as being more protective of the land than the more recent arrivals here of European descent.
Why should anybody outside of southeast Alaska care about the Tongass National Forest? For three reasons.
First, the millions of trees that stand on federal land belong to all Americans. Many of those trees are being cut for export. And if, as the General Accounting Office reported, the federal government is losing millions a year on the deal in administrative and road-building costs, that presumably would be a concern to all taxpayers.
Second, nobody - whether they call themselves an environmentalist or not - wants to see repeated the decline of wildlife species that has marked the legislative "gridlock" and "train wrecks" (choose your image) down in Oregon, Washington, and northern California.
And third, Americans by the hundreds of thousands - the number has doubled over the past 10 years - are coming here as tourists to learn about and appreciate the natural beauty that some now find marred by industrial logging. "It's impacting our business because people don't want to come up here and see clearcuts," says Sue Warner, who runs an expedition company based in Juneau, the state capital.
The Tongass National Forest is a veritable Noah's ark of wildlife - home to several hundred species of mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish. Black bears, grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, moose, mountain goats, mink, river otters, bald eagles, goshawks, and five species of salmon.
A walk through the cathedral-like forests at Port Houghton or Red Bluff presents a seemingly endless variety of trees, shrubs, berries, grasses, and mosses. Fresh evidence of bear - paw prints, claw marks on trees, roots dug up - is common, and bear are frequently seen snatching salmon headed upstream to spawn. Groups hiking here carry shotguns and pepper spray just in case.
Aside from some small-scale logging, mining, and fishing, there was little industrial activity here up through World War II. To encourage wood-fiber production and increased population (both seen as important goals in the early cold-war period), the federal government sought to promote development in what was still a territory by offering long-term contracts to log the national forest.
The results were 50-year agreements providing more than 13.5 billion board-feet of timber to two large corporations, which built what were then state-of-the-art pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan. One of those companies (the Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp Corporation) closed its doors in Sitka in 1993, claiming that Uncle Sam had failed to provide sufficient timber for the mill to stay in business. It's now suing the government for $1.2 billion.
Now the focus is on the Ketchikan Pulp Company, a subsidiary of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, one of the largest US forest-products companies. KPC produces "dissolving pulp" used in materials from rayon and cellophane to pharmaceuticals and food thickeners. Some 95 percent of its product is sold abroad (77 percent to Asia).
Critics say the company (with acquiescence if not encouragement from the Forest Service) has caused environmental damage by over-cutting the woods and polluting at its pulp mill. They're particularly critical of KPC's contract, which lasts through 2004.
"It's an exclusive, one-of-its-kind monopoly," says Bart Koehler, executive director of the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
The company - and most of the business establishment in Ketchikan - insist that KPC is a good corporate citizen providing the backbone of their economy. If problems cropped up in the past, supporters say, these were largely the result of a new environmental ethic. Company officials insist the only way to adjust to this new ethic is for Congress to extend the contract another 15 years so KPC can invest $200 million to modernize its mill.
Without such a contract extension, warns KPC president Ralph Lewis, "The viability of our mill is threatened along with the economy of our entire region."
Alaska's congressional delegation - Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Frank Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young (all Republicans) - are pushing legislation that would extend the contract. Mr. Young also has filed a bill that would turn the Tongass National Forest over to Alaska.
KPC worked closely with lawmakers drafting the bill. "We didn't actually write it, but we certainly had input," says KPC spokesman Troy Reinhart.
The clear warning here is that Louisiana-Pacific, which has had other business problems, could shut down the KPC mill. Regional officials say that would be bad news for the local economy.
"The effects of a timber decline on our members would be devastating," says Ernesta Ballard, president of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce and an environmental consultant (to KPC and others) and former regional director for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mill supporters say KPC provides 25 percent of the area's payroll in direct and related jobs, putting $5 million a month into the local economy. Mill wages average $45,000 per year and last year-round.
Other economic analysts assert that timber plays a relatively smaller - and declining - part of the region's economy.
In a recent report, ECONorthwest, a research firm in Eugene, Ore., that has done work for environmental groups, noted that "in 1995, those directly employed in the timber industry accounted for less than 6 percent of the region's total employment, and many of those were nonresidents."
"Fishing, tourism, and the quality of the natural environment contribute to the regional economy's diversity and strength," states this report. "Clearly, southeast Alaska's economy is diverse and strong enough to absorb reductions in timber harvest yet keep growing."
Still, even the most adamant environmentalists acknowledge there would have to be considerable adjustment if KPC pulls out. "I'm not going to minimize the situation," says Mr. Koehler of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "If that pulp mill closes, there's going to be a lot of pain and suffering."
KPC cleans up its act
While the company promises a more environmentally friendly future, its past is spotted. Following an EPA investigation that began during the Bush administration, KPC last year pleaded guilty to one felony and 13 misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act for illegally discharging pollutants into Ward Cove. The company was fined $6.1 million and placed on five years' probation.
"It is true we have had problems in the past and for those we apologize," company president Ralph Lewis told a Senate hearing in July. But "KPC has new management, and we are excited about the future and are ready to move forward."
In any case, turning wood chips into pulp remains an inherently messy and potentially poisonous business. Under the federal Toxic Chemical Release Inventory program, KPC must regularly report on its use of (and any pollution which results from) nine chemicals: nitric acid, phosphoric acid, chlorine, chloroform, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonia, methanol, and formic acid - all processed, manufactured, or used in the production of pulp.
Company officials claim great strides in improving the mill's operation, and have set as a goal becoming "totally chlorine-free" by the end of 1998. This would remove the danger of dioxin, a toxic carcinogen associated with pulpmaking.
"I've seen a lot of progress with them," says Ms. Ballard, the former EPA official now helping KPC design a new system for treating its wastewater.
Harangue over harvest
But it's away from the mill and out in the vast forests of the Tongass where most of the debate focuses.
Under the 50-year contract, KPC is supposed to be able to buy 192.5 million board-feet of timber each year from the Forest Service. (A board-foot measures 12 inches by 12 inches by 1 inch.)
The Forest Service normally designs 10- to 15-year management plans for each national forest. Because of environmental concerns, as reflected in reform legislation passed by Congress in 1990, the Forest Service amended the plan then in effect. The result was more restrictions on logging - what KPC complains were "unilateral modifications" - resulting in a reduced timber harvest of about 159 million board-feet a year. This led to lost jobs and periodic shutdowns of the company's operations. The company is suing in the US Court of Claims over that issue, and so far has won a settlement of $6 million.
Environmentalists and some inside the Forest Service, on the other hand, charge that the agency has been too compliant in allowing unsustainable logging that has threatened wildlife habitat.
"Substantial damage is being done to wildlife and fisheries," says K. J. Metcalf, who retired after working 26 years in the Forest Service. "We need to move away from industrial clear-cutting to a more sustainable forestry."
Although some biologists warn that local populations of wolves and goshawks are in decline, no species so far has been officially listed as endangered. But as Bradley Powell, Ketchikan area supervisor for Tongass, points out, "The issue is not numbers but distribution and [habitat] fragmentation."
In other words, some species need wide territories over which to range. When clearcuts and logging roads start to spread, this has an adverse impact on such species. Matthew Kirchoff, biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, notes that 50 years ago there were just 15 miles of road on Prince of Wales Island. Today, there are 3,500.
Unlike the lower 48 states, where much logging is selective, tree-cutting on the Tongass is virtually all in clearcuts. Proponents say the heavy rainfall (more than 200 inches per year in some areas) and rich soil mean quick forest regeneration.
"You have to beat back the trees," quips KPC spokesman Troy Reinhart.
New trees may come back quickly, others say, but after a few years this even-age forest forms such a thick canopy that other plants, which provide food for smaller mammals, disappear. This can disrupt the natural relationship between predator and prey found in old-growth forests.
"Basically, when you go into a 100-year rotation, you never get old-growth," says Mr. Kirchhoff. "The whole dynamic between wolves and deer is changing because of the changing landscape."
Forest management feud
The Forest Service recently issued its new draft management plan for the Tongass. The plan includes more wildlife habitat reserves, wider buffers along beaches and estuaries, and leaving some trees standing in clearcuts to improve habitat in second-growth forests. Agency officials assert that their plan will meet the obligation to provide sufficient timber under the 50-year contract.
But the Forest Service also opposes the legislation mill officials say they need to stay in business here. "It's more than an extension," says Mr. Powell. "It also changes quite a few features."
The Forest Service expected and received a large amount of feedback to its proposal. Hundreds of people showed up at hearings in small communities. Thousands have sent in written comments.
Many industry backers say the Forest Service is overly optimistic in predicting how much timber can be produced from the acreage targeted for harvesting under the plan. "They figured they could get more volume out of fewer trees," says Dick Coose, who retired after 32 years with the Forest Service and now heads a grass-roots group supportive of the industry.
But as is usually the case, the Forest Service finds itself with critics on the other side as well.
As part of the planning process, a "peer review committee" of university and other scientists was asked to go over habitat-conservation measures the Forest Service was considering for the Tongass.
In a recent statement, several of these scientists warned that "logging and related activities ... pose a significant risk to the viability of populations of several species associated with old-growth forests." This group recommends moving away from clearcutting, and it warns that local populations of goshawk and wolf (both considered important indicators of forest health) could be in danger of extinction if forestry methods are not changed to mimic nature.
Earlier this month, a group of scientists and resource managers from state and federal land-management agencies took an even harder line.
Critics from within
The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics is a national organization begun about six years ago. Some of these workers have become public whistle-blowers, but most remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
In its detailed analysis of the Forest Service proposal for the Tongass, AFSEEE recommends canceling Ketchikan Pulp Company's 50-year contract, establishing large biological reserves here, setting up strong watershed buffers to protect fisheries, harvesting selectively rather than clearcutting, and giving harvested forests 200 to 300 years to grow back.
"Today, competing uses on forestlands preclude the dominance of one industry over all other uses," states the AFSEEE report. "The Tongass will never return to the era of large-scale industrial logging.... We must now ask how we can manage for biological diversity and other sustainable uses and still provide commodities."
"My feeling is that the cautionary approach is best," says Jackie Canterbury, a Forest Service biologist for six years before resigning to become AFSEEE's Alaska coordinator based in Ketchikan.
Speaking out against her former employer has not been easy, especially living in a town so long dependent on timber and so stirred up over its future. There have been ominous phone calls and a bullet through her front window. "I would be crazy to say I'm not scared," she says.
With national elections this year, the time for any KPC contract extension is running short. Company officials say they're making contingency plans for layoffs. In recent days, representatives of KPC, the Alaska congressional delegation, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles's office, and the Clinton administration have been huddled in Washington weighing jobs and environmental protection on the Tongass.
"The basic issue is still how to manage those resources for the long term," says Bradley Powell of the Forest Service. "It's all about finding the appropriate balance."