In the Tongass, a tussle over Alaska’s identity

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A waterfall flows through the Tongass National Forest in southern Alaska on a foggy day.
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In 2001, the U.S. Forest Service issued the so-called Roadless Rule, which limits new roads in national forests across the United States, effectively protecting large swaths of land from timber harvesting.

Last fall, the Forest Service proposed exempting America’s largest national forest – the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, from the rule. Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation support the exemption, making it all but inevitable. But public opinion in Alaska leans against it.

Why We Wrote This

A debate over conservation in Alaska raises the question of where a forest gets its value. Is it in the lumber and other resources that can be extracted for profit, or does the value reside in the trees themselves?

Either way, it’s unlikely that logging will return to the Last Frontier. Timber harvesting had been on the decline for decades before the rule. Today, just 300 Alaskans are working in forestry and wood processing.

But logging still plays a key role in defining the state’s self-image, says Stephen Haycox, an emeritus history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and author of “Alaska: An American Colony.” The mythos of a self-reliant individual who squeezes wealth from the land “plays very well in the Alaskan psyche,” he says, and for Alaskans it’s “second nature for them to protest any action of federal government that inhibits any economic activity.”

About 20 years ago, Ernie Eads, who lives on Prince of Wales Island on the tip of the Alaska Panhandle, had a business idea. He emptied his bank account and bought, for $50,000, a sawmill in Pennsylvania that he disassembled, crated, and barged from Seattle to his home.

But before Mr. Eads had a chance to bolt the mill together, the U.S. Forest Service issued the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which severely limited construction of new roads on nearly 60 million acres of land in national forests across the United States – including half of the largest one, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. 

Home to wolves, brown bears, flying squirrels, and endangered birds such as the marbled murrelet, the Tongass is the largest (mostly) intact temperate rainforest on Earth. It spans 17 million acres from Mount Armour, 8,000 feet above sea level, across ice fields, glaciers, fjords, wetlands, and forests of old growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar that, combined, are larger than Maryland. 

Why We Wrote This

A debate over conservation in Alaska raises the question of where a forest gets its value. Is it in the lumber and other resources that can be extracted for profit, or does the value reside in the trees themselves?

The so-called Roadless Rule, issued right before President Bill Clinton left office, doesn’t apply to the relatively small tracts of Native American land in Southeast Alaska. And timber companies inside the forest could still bulldoze short stretches that branch off existing roads. But, by and large, loggers could no longer take their skidders and loaders into the panhandle’s most profitable old-growth tracts.

With the rule in place, Mr. Eads couldn’t buy up enough timber to make it worth running his mill. “It pretty much wiped out any plans I had,” he says. Today, his investment lies unused in his yard, now a heap of rusting steel.

Late last fall, the Forest Service proposed exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. According to reporting by the Washington Post, President Donald Trump personally requested the revision. More places might be next: Last July Utah asked for an exemption for its own Forest Service lands.

A final decision in Alaska could come in the next several months. If, as expected, the agency reverses the road-construction ban, some of the groves of giant conifers that have been protected by it will once more be at risk. Mr. Eads hopes the restrictions will end, but he says the change will come too late for him. “I got old,” he says. 

Daniel Grossman
Ernie Eads traded his savings for a sawmill just before the Roadless Rule made it hard to find big trees to cut into lumber. He never even bolted it together. The pieces (in the background) lie in rusting near his house.

Alaska’s Republican governor and all-Republican congressional delegation favor reversing the road ban, but public opinion in the state tilts against it, either by a large majority or a plurality, depending on whether you trust the opinion poll conducted by a Republican pollster or one commissioned by a national environmental group. The Forest Service received 144,000 comments – mostly opposed – to a draft published in 2018. But both proponents and opponents agree that new roads won’t revive Alaska’s timber industry.

Lying at the heart of the disagreement is Alaska’s dual identity as both an untouched wilderness and as a font of economic opportunity for those willing to brave it. At stake is millions of acres of Alaska’s natural heritage, immense trees that have stood for centuries, and an important carbon sink for the world's fossil fuel emissions. 

Boom and bust

Michael Kampnich, who lives on a head of land facing the Pacific Ocean in Craig, the island’s largest town, has spent most of his life on Prince of Wales, or POW, as locals call it. A New York state native, he drove up to Alaska in 1980 at the age of 21, where he landed a job felling timber.

Cutting timber, especially the larger trees, was a thrill, he says, recalling his years wielding chain saws with cutting bars as long as fishing rods along the fog-shrouded fjords of Southeast Alaska. This was in the 1980s, when the timber boom was in full swing. Mills sawed some of the wood into lumber for home construction and specialized uses such as piano soundboards where lengths of straight, tight grain is prized.

But much of the harvest was ground into chips and simmered in acid, producing an industrial feedstock that this one mill, Ketchikan Pulp, called Tongacell. Almost all of it was shipped to Japan, China, and other southeast Asian countries, where factories spun it into rayon. 

This mill, one of two such mills in the region, employed more than 1,000 workers, and supported hundreds more loggers, longshoremen, truckers, tug boat operators, and road builders. 

The company had a 50-year contract with the Forest Service for 8 billion board feet of wood, enough to build a boardwalk to the moon. “I went from making minimum wage,” Mr. Kampnich recalls, “to 200 to 250 dollars a day.”

But times changed, and so did Mr. Kampnich. Alaska pulp faced new overseas competition, rayon lost market share, and, mirroring battles to protect old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, environmental groups pushed through greater protection for old-growth trees. In 1981 and again in 1990, large swaths of the Tongass became designated wilderness areas, with logging prohibited. New rules reduced the size of clear cuts, halted cutting alongside streams, and outlawed “high grading,” cherry-picking the biggest, most lucrative trees.

Daniel Grossman
Michael Kampnich moved from the lower 48 to Alaska in 1980 and became a logger. Cutting huge trees was thrilling, he says. But now he says timber companies cut too much.

Mr. Kampnich retired from logging, and took up commercial fishing. He now says that loggers cut too much: “I’ve come to realize that we need to maintain some of these areas as unroaded in natural conditions.” The Nature Conservancy has hired him to promote its pro-environmental message on the island.

A 2013 paper in the journal Conservation Biology found that two-thirds of the big contiguous stands of the largest spruce, cedar, and hemlock in the Tongass have now been removed. Richard Carstensen, a naturalist at Discovery Southeast, a nature education center, says what’s left breaks his heart. “If people want to experience what it must have been like to walk half a day through a giant-tree forest, we can send them to a place where they walk for five minutes before they pop out the other side.” On POW, just 6.2% of the big-tree forests remain.

Would more roads bring the boom back? Dennis Watson, who lives near Mr. Kampnich, doubts that revising the Roadless Rule will increase the amount of timber cut. “I don’t think it’s going to go up. It’s not in the cards.” Mr. Watson was mayor of Craig for 26 years, until 2017. He has tried to reverse the Roadless Rule ever since it became law. But he’s aware that timber harvests had been sliding steadily for a decade before the Forest Service banned new roads.

Nathalie Dawson, head of the Audubon Society’s Alaska office and a Ph.D. biologist, says Tongass wood simply costs too much to be competitive, despite heavy subsidies from the Forest Service. The federal government props up logging Tongass wood in several ways, including funding maintenance of existing logging roads. It might pay for construction of new ones. Environmental rules have increased the oversight, and therefore the cost to taxpayers, of logging. But Alaska’s greatest problem is its uneconomical distance from the contiguous U.S. and international timber markets. The pulp mills had closed down years before the Roadless Rule became law. And, Dr. Dawson says, the best trees are gone. “Basically, they cut everything that was easy to get.” New timber has gotten more and more expensive to get.

Tessa Axelson, director of the Alaska Forestry Association, agrees with Dr. Dawson in one regard: that much of the timber currently offered by the Forest Service is too expensive to be profitable.

“We have been challenged to receive a predictable supply” of economically harvestable wood, she says. Opening up new areas to logging (with roads that the Forest Service might build at taxpayer expense) would alleviate the problem, she adds. “The primary beneficiaries are the communities of Southeast Alaska.”

Dr. Dawson doubts that releasing the industry from road-building rules will help the local economy much. Most Tongass logs are shipped directly to Asia with little processing. And the timber industry now has little potential to boost Southeast Alaska’s employment. The only sawmill with more than a handful of workers, Viking Lumber, a few miles outside Craig, employs only about 35 people. Roughly 300 people in Alaska work in forestry and wood processing, less than one-tenth of 1% of the state’s workforce.

A frontier mentality

So why did Alaska’s leading elected officials campaign to rescind the rule?

Stephen Haycox, an emeritus history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage says that the state’s unusual political culture plays a big role. He says Alaskans spend more time on public and wild lands than most other Americans. But, “that doesn’t prevent them at all from supporting exploitation of the resource base.” Alaskans have earned their living by digging up and pumping up what’s below the ground, chopping down what’s on the surface, and scooping out what’s in the sea ever since the Klondike Gold Rush. (And, of course the state's indigenous people have lived off the land for much longer.) Alaska’s frigid temperatures and separation from the rest of the country make it noncompetitive for most growing and manufacturing as well as for timbering.

Professor Haycox, author of “Alaska: An American Colony,” says Alaskans have developed a powerful romantic association with the myth of the rugged individual: self-reliant and free of distant bureaucrats. It “plays very well in the Alaskan psyche.” Successful state-level politicians know how to harness this ideology, he says, for their own purposes. It’s “second nature for them to protest any action of federal government that inhibits any economic activity in Alaska.” Never mind the cold fact that Alaska is thoroughly dependent on federal subsidies and oil-company payments. 

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, is the state’s senior senator. Her opposition to the Roadless Rule is “not only about timber,” she says in a phone interview. She says the rule hampers access to mineral resources and hydroelectric sites. The goal, she says, is to “make sure people can actually access the region.” 

Mr. Watson, the former Craig mayor, hopes that a new mine extracting rare earth metals, elements in demand for electronics and high performance magnets, will soon open at an inaccessible site on the island, the first such mine in the U.S. But he says red tape could slow approval of a road to the location, even though the Roadless Rule permits transportation corridors in support of such nonlogging activities. “We’d like to have things happen on this island that will allow us to survive,” he said. 

Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney of EarthJustice’s Alaska office and veteran of more than a dozen lawsuits countering challenges to the Roadless Rule, says Mr. Watson’s and Sen. Murkowski’s concern is “not based in reality.” He says that “even if red tape were a problem, that would not be a rationale for gutting the rule,” as the Forest Service could solve that issue without allowing new logging roads.

In an old-growth forest 20 miles northwest of Craig, Elsa Sebastian, a commercial fisherman who grew up on POW, points out a new clear-cut. The trunks had been dragged away, and the waist-high stumps were like empty pedestals after the ransacking of an ancient temple.

Downhill, through carpets of moss, liverworts, and ferns toward the Thorne River, a thin strip of uncut forest, required by state law, was left to protect the stream. Pink salmon flopped frantically in shallow pools. They’d spawn soon. Ms. Sebastian leaned against the base of a hemlock nearly as wide as her outstretched arms and probably half as high as the 22-story Conoco-Phillips building in Anchorage. 

Rescinding the Roadless Rule might not increase the wood logged. But it will threaten surviving ancients like this and threaten rare animals that live among them. “That tree was standing before the United States was the United States,” she said, gazing into its crown. “Just being in the presence of such a being puts our lifetimes into perspective.”

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