A Crossroad for Wilderness

If the Bush administration gets its way, roads will be slashed through the Tongass, the largest intact temperate rain forest on earth.

There are no docks or vessels at Port Houghton, Alaska. In fact, there are no buildings, no roads, no landing strips, no people. Getting there by boat is possible but brutal. To fly there you need pontoons -- heavy, rock-resistant ones of the sort slung under our ancient Beaver out of Juneau, 85 miles to the north. Snow streaked its windows on April 23, 2002, as we followed the fjord to the mouth of the Rusty River. Below us scoters billowed like diesel smoke from the waveless inlet, and sea lions stretched and rolled.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We pitched our tents on sphagnum moss under towering western hemlocks at the end of a mile-long wet meadow strewn with goose scat. As our campfire died, a waxing gibbous moon flared up from a cloud bank, backlighting long tresses of witches' hair lichen that hung from the trees, washing over the meadow's brown grass, flashing off the cans of beer I'd just stuffed into the last snowdrift. Hours later, the howling of wolves, augmented by the valley and echoing off the steep, timbered slopes, woke me from a dreamless sleep. They were Alexander Archipelago wolves -- unique to southeast Alaska and endangered in fact if not by federal decree.

At daybreak my socks and boots were frozen solid, but the valley warmed fast when the sun topped the snowcapped peaks. What had looked like another cloud bank sailing in high from the west turned out to be the ice fields of the Coast Range. Mountain bluebirds wafted along the river. Gulls wheeled and screamed over the first slug of spawning candlefish. Water ouzels on rocks and logs bobbed, dipped, then marched into and under the current. Ravens harassed bald eagles. A snowy owl patrolled the meadow at high noon. Upstream there were beavers, river otters, a freshly undenned black bear, and, though we didn't see them, brown bears, moose, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and wolverines. The river's sandy banks were littered with the spines, jaws, and gill plates of last year's spawned-out salmon -- all five species. In the clear water, salmon-size steelhead trout, minutes out of the Pacific, surged from our shadows or eased through deadfalls.

If the Bush administration gets its way, the woods around Port Houghton and similar woods all across America will have roads hacked through them, much of their fish and wildlife sacrificed, and their trees cut and auctioned off to private corporations at a net loss to the federal government. The attack has been secretive, and since September 11 the public hasn't been paying attention anyway. "We're losing places like this before we even know we have them," says Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

To camp here for four nights, Hayden, I, and our five companions hadn’t had to pay anything, hadn’t even had to get a permit. After all, it was our land—part of the Tongass National Forest, the Yellowstone of America’s 155-unit national forest system and, at 17 million acres, three times the size of our next biggest national forest, the Chugach, also in Alaska and 125 miles to the northwest. From the Malaspina Glacier west of Yakutat Bay, the Tongass sweeps south 500 miles over most of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle and

the Alexander Archipelago. In winter it is warmer than Massachusetts. In summer it is never hot. All year glaciers melt or break away into the sea along 11,000 miles of wild shoreline, and salmon and steelhead streams, more than 2,000 of them, curl through green valleys shaded by western hemlocks, Sitka spruces, and red and yellow cedars, some of which have anchored this rich soil since the Middle Ages. Most of the earth’s temperate rain forests have been destroyed by humans. Now there are only fragments in New Zealand, Tasmania, Chile, and the Pacific Northwest. About one-third of the remaining supply is in the Tongass National Forest, making it the largest relatively intact temperate rain forest on earth.

BUT NOT ALL THE TONGASS is wild and unspoiled. To accommodate private timber companies, the Forest Service has constructed or financed the construction of 4,650 miles of roads. Short of replacing forests with asphalt and concrete, nothing humans do to them, even clearcutting, is more hurtful than road building. Roads destabilize soils, setting off landslides, polluting lakes and rivers, burying spawning habitat. Road culverts block fish migration. (In the Tongass, for instance, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that 66 percent of the culverts may be blocking salmon and 85 percent may be blocking trout.) Roads fragment wildlife habitat, eliminating creatures that require big tracts of undeveloped land such as forest birds, elk, caribou, lynx, wolves, wolverines, and grizzlies. They allow easy, motorized access to people who kill fish and wildlife or unintentionally drive it off, often by their mere presence. They also provide easy access to developers who, with the blessing of the Forest Service, build major resorts for skiing and other recreation in national forests. While an element of the public sees such development as attractive, the cost in what another element values most about our forests—beauty, quietude, fish, and wildlife—has been monumental.

To facilitate the sale of timber, the U.S. Forest Service has constructed 386,000 miles of roads in our national forests, nine times the length of the interstate highway system and enough to circle the globe 15 times. The agency can’t begin to take care of these roads; in fact, it has an $8.4 billion road-maintenance backlog. And, as the roads deteriorate, the speed at which they destroy water, fish, and wildlife increases. By law, these resources are to be managed by the Forest Service just as zealously as timber. But the only Forest Service chief who ever took this legal mandate seriously was Michael Dombeck, a career fisheries biologist appointed in 1996 by the Clinton administration. Among Dombeck’s first words to his employees: “I want to make it clear that no Forest Service program has dominance over another. Timber is not more important than wildlife and fisheries.”

Accordingly, Dombeck halted road construction in 120 national forests. Then, getting Clinton’s backing, he proposed permanent protection for roadless areas—58.5 million acres of the 192-million-acre national forest system. But in deference to Alaska’s powerful, ardently pro-logging Republican congressional delegation—Rep. Don Young and Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens—the Tongass was exempted.

Dombeck’s rule made eminent economic sense. Road construction is the main reason the Forest Service loses money when it sells the public’s timber, thereby requiring us to pay cash for the privilege of having our trees removed, our soil ripped up, our water degraded, and our fish and wildlife sacrificed. Moreover, roadless areas are roadless for a reason: Industry hadn’t wanted the timber because it was difficult to access or wasn’t worth much. In fact, the national forests themselves were acquired because the timber industry hadn’t wanted them. Even today, after the industry has skimmed the best logs from its own holdings, the national forests produce only 5 percent of America’s wood fiber.

In 1999, as per requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Forest Service solicited public commentary on its roadless rule, eventually hosting 600 meetings and hearings in 37 states, getting inundated with the greatest outpouring of public support in the nation’s rule-making history. In all, the Forest Service has received more than 2 million comments from people who say they want their roadless areas permanently protected; that’s eight times the number who made themselves heard either way in the next most commented-on rule, the organic food standards of 2000. So overwhelming was support for the Tongass that, to the horror of the Alaska delegation, it was included in the final rule. Then George W. Bush was elected president.

Overturning the roadless rule would have been politically dangerous. Instead, Bush strategists set about killing it by a thousand cuts. First, they announced a 60-day delay. Then they took a dive in court. At his confirmation hearings, Attorney General John Ashcroft had pledged to defend the roadless rule as the “law of the land.” “I will, regardless of whether or not I supported something as a senator, defend the rule,” he had testified under oath. But, at the very first opportunity Ashcroft broke his word, refusing to defend the roadless rule against lawsuits brought in U.S. District Court in Idaho by Boise Cascade and the state of Idaho; in fact, the Justice Department aided and abetted the plaintiffs by expressing sympathy for their concerns. On May 10, 2001, two days before the roadless rule would have been law, the judge halted it with a preliminary injunction, citing as a reason the government’s support for the

plaintiffs’ position. The decision is being appealed by the environmental groups that had intervened in the case.

In July 2001, with the preliminary injunction in place, the Forest Service opened a new public comment period, this time seeking answers to 10 loaded timber-industry questions the administration called “reasonable concerns.” (Of the 674,008 comments, 652,121 were in favor of roadless protection.) That same month the agency issued an “interim directive,” announcing the administration’s intention to let local Forest Service bureaucrats decide whether or not they wanted to protect roadless areas. Now, if protection happened to be what they hankered for, they wouldn’t be able to shrug and cite federal law; instead they’d have to sit down with politically well-connected timber executives, look them in the eye, and say, “Sorry, I’ve decided you can’t cut.” Local decision making is precisely why the national forests have 386,000 miles of roads.

The directive also removed 12 national forests from roadless protection (including the Tongass, which, on the strength of public comment, the Clinton administration had reinstated after the initial exemption). Suddenly, the woods around Port Houghton and 29 other roadless areas where Tongass timber sales had been planned were back on the block. As of old, the three men of Alaska’s congressional delegation, not the American people, were calling the shots.

On September 20, 2001, under the cover of the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration stepped up its assault by proposing to exempt certain activities in roadless areas from environmental review. Then, in December, it issued a directive that relaxed road-construction standards for roadless areas.

To lead the Forest Service, the Bush administration had chosen Dale Bosworth—an agency professional with a respectable environmental record who excels at following orders and who had worked for Dombeck, doing his bidding to manage for fish and wildlife as well as timber. But now Bosworth is following the orders of his immediate supervisor, former timber lobbyist Mark Rey, who continues to represent the timber industry as Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. Rey has also worked as an aide to Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, helping him keep the clearcutters and road builders busy in the Tongass.

At the bidding of the timber industry and its allies, the Bush administration wrote draft regulations for national forests, which, in the summer of 2001, found their way into the hands of the environmental community. Existing regulations had required ecological sustainability as the cornerstone of management, the idea being that whatever product you take from a forest—oil, minerals, wood fiber, fish, wildlife—can’t come at the permanent expense of functioning ecosystems. In the draft regulations that requirement was dropped, replaced by one that put economic and social considerations on an equal footing with ecological sustainability, thereby creating an opportunity for bureaucrats to decide what species the public can get along without.

IT WAS DOMBECK, not Bush, Rey, and Bosworth, who veered from tradition. For example, in 1954 the federal government had cut a deal with Ketchikan Pulp Company to feed it 8.25 billion board feet of sharply discounted Tongass timber over the next half century. Three years later it cut a deal with the Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp Corporation to feed it 5 billion board feet over the same period. The result was some of the worst forest abuse in U.S. history. Wildlife habitat in parts of the Tongass unraveled in a maze of new roads; old growth was stripped from valleys and mountainsides; broken earth bled into newly shadeless salmon and steelhead streams. Tongass old growth—which had once provided wood for violins, grand pianos, and other products that can’t be made with anything else—got ground up for cellophane.

The discounts guaranteed by the two contracts and an automatic $40 million-a-year government-provided subsidy for road building and sales operations caused the Tongass to lose more money on timber sales than any other national forest. But even with the gifts showered on them by taxpayers, the two pulp companies saw fit to collude on bidding and conspire to fix prices, thereby forcing small logging operations out of business. According to court documents issued in 1981, 102 independent logging and milling companies were forced to bankruptcy, or otherwise driven from the logging business by Ketchikan Pulp and Alaska Pulp. “With a drop of the executioner’s sword,” found the court, “the defendants could cut off a logger’s financing, force the logger out of business, and acquire the company or its assets.” In addition, the federal government reported that Ketchikan Pulp and Alaska Pulp had defrauded it to the tune of at least $76.5 million by falsifying data. As a result, no one really knows how much timber has been removed from the Tongass.

Nothing the pulp companies did, legally or otherwise, and none of their copious subsidies enabled them to compete on the world timber market. In 1993 Alaska Pulp closed its mill. Four years later Ketchikan Pulp closed its mill, too. Now that the Forest Service didn’t have to “feed the beasts,” it finally had the opportunity to manage America’s biggest and wildest

national forest as the law required—for multiple values on a sustained basis. Michael Dombeck seized it.

In 1999, ruling on an administrative appeal by environmentalists, Dombeck’s Forest Service amended its 1997 Tongass management plan, protecting 40 roadless areas, including most of the woods around Port Houghton. Recently, a timber-industry lawsuit has removed these protections, but instead of defending the Tongass plan in court, Bush’s Justice Department took another dive, declining to appeal and, in fact, agreeing to pay attorneys fees for the plaintiffs before the case was even over. Again it aided and abetted the plaintiffs by expressing sympathy for their concerns. Now the Forest Service has retreated to the 1997 plan.

As all this was going down, the environmental community, led by Earthjustice, had been waging a court battle of its own, charging that Dombeck’s amended 1999 Tongass management plan, otherwise to its liking, had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to consider any of the roadless areas for wilderness, a designation that proscribes road building and logging. On March 30, 2001, U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton Jr. found for the plaintiffs, halting all Tongass roadless timber sales authorized under the amended plan until the Forest Service finished studying the roadless areas for possible wilderness designation. The Forest Service pushed pencils around till May 17, 2002, and then, in the first big wilderness decision of the Bush administration, announced that it had figured out that not one of the Tongass’ 9.4 million roadless acres deserved wilderness protection. This would be its official recommendation going into the study’s public comment period.

At first glance, the administration’s behavior

OVERTURNING is hard to figure. These days timber doesn’t even make a blip in southeast Alaska’s economy, supporting only 2 percent of the workforce. What sustains the region is tourism and recreational, commercial, and subsistence fishing. The Tongass’ 2,000 salmon and steelhead streams produce an annual sport catch of 1 million fish, a commercial catch of 160 million pounds, and a subsistence catch of 1.2 million pounds. There are people here—particularly Native Americans—who would literally starve without this resource. Leaving a Tongass tree for tourism and recreation contributes at least nine times more to the regional economy than cutting it for the timber industry. It’s roughly the same everywhere. Throughout the national forest system, recreational activities generate almost $100 billion a year while logging generates $3.5 billion. What’s more, traditional timber strip mining of the sort the Bush administration is resurrecting drastically reduces these income sources.

Technically, the old growth of temperate rain forests is a “renewable resource.” But, tech-nically, so is oil. As Ketchikan Pulp and Alaska Pulp have demonstrated, any industry based on old growth—which takes centuries to regenerate—hasn’t got a chance. Before the two pulp mills went belly-up, they were swilling something like 350 million board feet of Tongass timber a year. Last year the Forest Service sold only 50 million board feet of Tongass timber, less than any year since 1942. The industry doesn’t need new roads because it can access 10 billion board feet of standing timber from the forest’s existing road system.

Using public funds and public resources to prop up a doomed industry would seem to make no sense. Cutting new roads when the Forest Service can’t take care of the ones it has would seem to make no sense. What could be the motive other than pumping a little pork into the turf of two powerful Republican senators and a loud Republican congressman?

Maybe the motive has nothing to do with timber. Ten minutes by ferry from Gravina Island, likely site of the first of 30 roadless Tongass timber sales to be offered by the

Bush administration, is Ketchikan, a city that gets 600,000 cruise-ship visitors a year. Gravina Island isn’t entirely within the Tongass National Forest; about a third of it is in nonfederal ownership. With a timber sale would come an opportunity for a bridge connecting Gravina to the mainland. Then, on Gravina, the Forest Service would construct 23 miles of “logging” roads. The profits would be made by the developers who have drooled over Gravina for years. Many Ketchikan residents are repulsed at the prospect of resorts and industry on this wilderness island. As one of them asked the Los Angeles Times, “Where’s the parking lot going to be? Where are the rest rooms going to be?”

THOSE WHO BELIEVE THERE are enough resorts, industries, parking lots, and rest rooms in and around our national forests may not have to wait and see what the Bush administration does. One possible option is the Alaska Rainforest Conservation Act, introduced September 20, 2001, by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) with 78 of her House colleagues. It would protect about 15 million acres and 81 river systems in the Tongass and Chugach national forests, including Port Houghton and the 29 other roadless areas that are under immediate threat. Another option is the National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act, introduced June 5, 2002, by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and 172 co-sponsors. The legislation would force the Forest Service to implement Dombeck’s road-less rule.

“We’re sitting in a place that absolutely should be designated as new wilderness,” declared Tim Bristol, director of an environmental alliance called the Alaska Coalition, as the sun dipped behind the Coast Range on our last evening in camp. “The thing that’s most important to remember about wilderness is that you can do everything we’re doing right now. You can come in here and hike, fish, hunt, take photographs, put out crab pots, build fires, cook. You can do all the things that make places like this so important to so many people. The only thing you can’t do is screw it up.”

I was itching for one last crack at the steelhead that held in the long run 100 yards from our campsite. As I cast to them, the words of Earthjustice’s Marty Hayden came back to me: “We’re losing places like this before we even know we have them.” We’d been calling this stream the “Rusty River,” but that’s only one of the local names. It’s not considered important enough to have an official name on government topo maps. Neither the Forest Service nor the Alaska Department of Fish and Game knows if coastal cutthroat trout abide in its water, but I know because I had caught one that morning. Fish and Game estimates the entire annual steelhead run here at 50 fish, but neither it nor the Forest Service has looked. The estimate is ridiculously low because, although the run had just started, we’d seen about 25 fresh fish that day, and during our stay we’d hooked or caught and released at least 30. Fish and Game guesses there are 335 other streams that sustain steelhead in the Tongass, but, again, neither it nor the Forest Service has looked.

The steelhead got spooky after they’d seen my fly swing past them a few dozen times; they shifted in the current, moving up and down the run, leaving silver wakes on the obsidian surface. Finally, I tied on a huge chartreuse fly called a Clouser and, on the first cast, watched it vanish into the jaws of a 15-pound male. In the twilight we danced up and down the river, sometimes in it, sometimes out of it, and when we fi-nally joined each other on a sandbar it was too dark for photos. I wouldn’t need them anyway. For a minute I held his head in the icy flow, then watched him rejoin the pod.

I stood and slowly turned 360 degrees, taking a long look at river, woods, meadow, valley, sea, mountains, snowfields, and glaciers. The vastness of the scene reminded me that it’s not too late for the Tongass. What this forest has going for it is that it’s the size of West Virginia. Parts have been stripped of magic by people who couldn’t see its real treasures, but most of it still is as pristine as Port Houghton. It had been good to touch the big steelhead’s wildness, and through him, the wildness of the place, good to know this piece of our national forest system when its river was clear, cold, and full of fish, when wolves ghosted through old growth and sang in the moonlight, when it had no clearcuts, no buildings, no traffic, no roads.