It is 10 o’clock in the morning and down at the Crescent Harbor Lightering Dock in Sitka, Alaska, the first cruise ship passengers of the day are coming ashore. A crush of locals are there to meet them, hawking kayak trips along the Inside Passage and bus tours highlighting Sitka’s Tlingit native history and fishing expeditions in the Sitka Sound. Kristen Schwab, a young woman in a heavy waterproof parka and a goofy fleece hat, positions herself among them. Like the others, Schwab has something to sell, only what she has doesn’t cost money. It is a vision of wild Alaska piqued by President Clinton last October when he proposed limiting new road construction in many of the roadless areas of our national forests.
“Good morning,” she says warmly to an older couple who are standing in the parking lot, organizing their things. Before they can react, Schwab has moved closer, all the while continuing to speak.
“Do you folks know it is the comment period for the U.S. Forest Service policy on roadless areas, and this part of Alaska is not included?”
The man shoots his wife an anxious look, and she shoots one back to him. Talking politics is clearly not their idea of vacation fun.
“We don’t live here,” the man says firmly, as if he’s shutting a door.
But Schwab won’t let it close. “It’s a federal policy,” she says, meaning that wherever in the United States they come from, the policy is theirs to remark upon.
The woman looks annoyed. “We only have 45 minutes before we are due back for our wildlife cruise,” she tells Schwab. The woman picks up her bag and starts to walk in the direction of Lincoln Street, Sitka’s T-shirt-and-trinket thoroughfare. Her husband follows. Behind them is Kristen Schwab.
“I totally understand,” Schwab calls out to them. “You’re really going to love it in the Tongass.” The man stops, and turns. “The Tongass? Where’s that?” he asks.
The Tongass National Forest, it turns out, is right where they are. A 500-mile-long coastal greenway of islands and fjords running up the outstretched arm of southeastern Alaska, it is a place where untamed nature and people coexist. Sitka, a town of about 9,000 souls, lies at the western edge of the Tongass on Baranof Island, a mainly uninhabited tree-covered wilderness. At 17 million acres, the Tongass is not only the biggest national forest in the United States, but also the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Steep and wet, green without end, it is the quintessence of wildness. Eagles nest in its spruce trees. Brown bears patrol its beaches. Five species of salmon run its waterways.
“This place has great big ancient trees. Thousand-year-old trees. Huge trees that make you feel small and protected,” observes Richard Nelson, the Alaska State Writer and a resident of Sitka. “Bear, deer, bald eagles, and salmon congregate where there are big trees. There’s probably never a time when there’s not a grizzly one mile from my house. Bears are emblematic; they define wildness. There are more grizzlies in the Tongass than in the entire lower 48 states — over a thousand on Baranof Island alone. Imagine a thousand grizzlies along the corridor between New York City and Philadelphia.”
To tell the truth, I can no more imagine a single grizzly bear hustling along the New Jersey Turnpike than I can a parade of SUVs going off-road in this rugged corner of southeastern Alaska, their occupants eager to experience “real” wilderness. But the fact is, those drivers don’t have to stray from the beaten path. There are already more than 4,600 miles of roads carved deep into the Tongass, roads made to haul out tons of timber each year. Since Americans took possession of Alaska in the 19th century, clearcut logging is what the Tongass has been considered “good for,” and putting in thousands of miles of roads has been essential to treating it like a tree farm. President Clinton’s roadless initiative, which was meant to curb new road construction in national forests, simply confirmed this: When it was announced, the Tongass was the only sizable national forest not included. Despite the entreaties of both scientists and environmentalists, the president chose to bow to political (that is, business) interests and keep the Tongass away from the policy’s protective reach.
“If the Tongass was located anywhere else in the country, it wouldn’t be a national forest, it would be a national park,” Nelson says. “National parks are set aside for preserving the integrity and richness of their natural environment. National forests are so-called multiple-use public lands. Which means that they are open for activities like grazing, commercial development, and clearcutting.”
Sitka used to be a timber town. as much as 400 million board feet of old-growth spruce, cedar, and hemlock moved through it each year. The wood was processed in one of the area’s two pulp mills and then shipped to Japan, where it was used in rayon and cellophane and thickener for soft ice cream. The logging was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, which paid for all the road development and which, after World War II, gave the pulp companies a 50-year exclusive contract to log the Tongass. “Until the early 1980s,” says Brian McNitt, director of the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and Kristen Schwab’s boss, “they were getting 400- and 500-year-old trees for the price of a Big Mac.”
This changed in 1990, due in large part to the efforts of grassroots activist groups like SCS. It was then that Congress passed the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which eliminated the $40 million in annual subsidies channeled to private corporations through the Forest Service to support logging the Tongass. Not surprisingly, hauling out and processing the wood became less lucrative, so the industrial pulp companies, whose business model relied on a steady infusion of cash from their silent partners in Washington, decided to close up shop. Logging is still allowed, but timber sales have to be put up for bid on the open market.
“Everyone expected this big economic downturn when the pulp mills closed, but it just didn’t happen,” says Nelson. “It turned out that the economy was more diverse than that.” Nelson points out that the booming tourist trade has made the trees more valuable in the ground than on the back of a log truck or in a milk shake. “There are thousands and thousands of tourists coming here each year,” he says, “and they are not coming to look at clearcuts.”
Fly over the Tongass, though, and you will see them — huge tracts of forest mowed to stubble, as if each tree had been merely a blade of grass. The scale is unimaginable. But scale works the other way, too: Because the Tongass is so big, the clearcuts can seem, by comparison, small. What’s half a million acres or so of “missing” trees in a forest the size of West Virginia? The Tongass is the timber equivalent of the ocean and the sky. Surely, the argument goes (the argument of the clearcutters and the ocean dumpers and the coal burners), the place is big enough to absorb a certain amount of decimation. And that may be true, up to a point. But where is that point and who gets to say? Politics relies on the muteness of fish and deer and birds, whose habitat is routinely, and blithely, eliminated or spoiled by commerce. But it also counts on the willful debilities of people: our deliberate shortsightedness, for example. In only 50 years, half of the largest trees in the Tongass have been cut down. According to government figures, an additional 1.3 million acres of roadless area remain unprotected, including nearly 250,000 acres of old growth that are currently scheduled for logging.
“It has been consistently demonstrated that roadless areas are crucial to the protection of our nation’s wildlife, fisheries, and water resources,” 315 scientists wrote to President Clinton in December 1999, in a letter about the Tongass that he chose to ignore. “These areas are critical because they represent the least disturbed habitats in an almost universally disturbed landscape.”
At noon, Kristen Schwab repositions herself on Castle Hill, a historic promontory where the Russians handed over Alaska to the Americans in 1867. Lots of tourists come here, not only to recall that event, but to look out at the breathtaking mosaic of islands and water ringed by towering mountains. The wind is blowing hard, and Kristen pulls her hat down lower and approaches a couple looking off into the distance. They mistake Schwab for a tour guide and pepper her with questions. Kristen tells them about the glaciers and the extinct volcanoes and the tundra and the Sitka black-tailed deer that roam the forests. For a moment the three of them look out toward the sea of snowcapped mountains, and then, gently, Kristen begins her spiel. The couple listens to her for a while, but before Schwab can hand them a comment card urging the Forest Service to exempt the Tongass from further road development, the woman starts telling Kristen about the cruise they’re on, and about all the scarified land they have been seeing, steep mountainsides that have turned to scree and rubble.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Kristen Schwab tells her. “Those are clearcuts.”
“Who allows that?” the woman asks innocently.
“We do,” Schwab says.