In Alaska's Tongass forest, a new battle over logging

The Bush administration is working to increase timber sales and build new logging roads in America's rainforest.

In the mouth of a nameless stream set at the tranquil head of Ushk Bay, hulking brown bears join seals and screeching bald eagles in a feast of coho salmon.

The fish have come home in schools from the sea to spawn, swimming to reach ancestral freshwater river courses girded by ancient Sitka spruce and cedar.

But Ushk Bay, like dozens of other inlets that few humans will ever see, is also a place of convergence for something else: environmentalists, loggers, and the Bush administration poised for a recommencement of America's timber wars.

With the Bush administration wanting to open up more federal lands to logging, timber interests and environmentalists are girding for a clash over what has long been the premier canopy of American trees: the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest.

While many issues surrounding the pristine area remain tied up in courts, both sides sense a political shift underway in Washington and the state of Alaska that could lead to more felling of the ancient forest where there are currently no roads.

"You can almost hear the timber industry oiling its chainsaws and sharpening its blades in anticipation," says Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society. "Many of us thought the major battles over big trees were put to rest in the 1990s, but the Bush administration seems eager to fight them again in our national forests."

To be sure, there won't be any widespread revving up of chainsaws overnight. The Bush administration, suffered a major setback last week, when a federal appeals court reinstated a Clinton administration rule designed to protect 60-million acres of national forests from logging and road construction.

The Bush administration and timber interests had sought to weaken or kill the measure, which applies to one-third of the nation's forest lands. The decision, in effect, stymies nearly three-dozen timber sales that would have meant new roads and logging in parts of the Tongass.

Yet even with the new ruling, the issue of gaining access to the woods here isn't going to disappear. US Forest Service officials have acknowledged in meetings in recent months that they may seek to skirt safeguards on the Tongass, both by writing new forest regulations or amending existing environmental laws.

Behind all the maneuvering is the importance of this national forest to both environmentalists and timber interests.

For starters, it is the largest national forest in the United States - an area bigger than eight Yellowstones. The landscape is dotted with glacial fjords, volcanic mountains, and giant confers that harbor countless grizzlies and bald eagles. It is a fount of steelhead trout and home to one of the largest populations of salmon in the world.

Loggers prize the expanse for their own reasons. At one point, the forest yielded upwards of 500 million board feet of lumber a year. The Tongass and nearby lands owned by Native Alaskan corporations supported 4,000 timber jobs - and served as the fulcrum of local economies and culture.

More recently, two-thirds of the jobs have vanished. Two large pulp mills during the last decade, closed due to decreased supply, falling wood prices, and legal challenges from environmentalists.

Loggers clearly sense a change in the political climate now, though. In addition to the more friendly signs they're seeing from the Bush administration, timber interests have an ally in Alaska governor-elect Frank Murkowski, the former US senator who not only supports increased logging but oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"We're hopeful the Bush administration and the new political alignment in Washington, D.C. will give us one last gasp to bring back the timber industry to the way it was," says George Woodbury, president of the Alaska Forest Association. "If it doesn't happen now, it never will."

The timber industry, says Mr. Woodbury, would like to convince the Forest Service to more than double the volume of logging in the Tongass established by the agency under the Clinton administration.

He believes the forest can certainly sustain more logging. "If you listen to the propaganda of environmentalists, you wouldn't believe there was a tree left standing in southeast Alaska," Woodbury says, noting that six-million acres of the Tongass is protected.

But environmentalists counter that most of the protected land lies in the high ice-covered mountains. They're concerned about the lower-elevation rainforest which holds rich-ecological value.

It's not that environmentalists believe no timber should be cut, says Brian McNitt, a conservationist campaigning for legislation that would permanently protect much of the Tongass as federal wilderness.

The sales, he says, are in the wrong places because they often harm wildlife. Logging roads cause severe erosion, clogging salmon streams with silt and making passage impossible for fish, according to a recent report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"The biggest old-growth trees that the timber industry wants are found along streams, and you can't cut them and build logging roads to get them out without hurting the salmon," says Mr. McNitt.

For now, the impasse between the two sides seems unbridgeable.

"We will always have disagreements over how land is allocated to various special interests but that's probably good," says Tongass forest supervisor Thomas Puchlerz. "It's democracy in action."

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