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A grand arc of plenty.

MOST OF THE THOUSAND-MILE ARC OF THE Alaska rainforest, from Ketchikan at the southern tip of the "panhandle" to Kodiak Island, is much as it was when Vitus Bering, near death from scurvy, first glimpsed it in 1741, and as Alutiiq hunters had known it for the last 7,000 years. Where mountains jut 18,000 feet out of the sea and glaciers as big as Rhode Island calve monstrous icebergs into the tides, the natural giantism of the Pleistocene still survives in the largest bears on earth and moose that stand higher than horses. Towering hemlock, cedar, and spruce shade rivers still throbbing with salmon, while coastal waters teem with orcas, sea lions, otters, and milkywhite belugas--a natural wealth that sustained human communities in comfort and plenty for millennia.

Our generation, however, is destroying the source of bounty. When the wreck of the Exxon Valdez blackened more than 1,500 miles of Alaska beaches with 11 million gallons of North Slope crude in 1989, the world learned how fragile this mighty system is. Five years later, most visible signs of the spill are gone (though populations of otter, salmon, harbor seals, harlequin ducks, and marbled murrelets have still not recovered). Now the region faces a graver, more permanent threat: the same razed-earth logging that has already devastated the Pacific Northwest.

But by rare poetic justice, the former disaster provides the opportunity to help stop the latter. Nearly $700 million in civil and criminal penalties assessed against Exxon are available to help restore the region by such means as the purchase and permanent protection of private inholdings within public parks, refuges, and forests. The Sierra Club has helped form a broad alliance of environmentalists, commercial and sport fishermen, tourism entrepreneurs, Native corporations, and Native subsistence users to ensure that much of this money is spent on preservation. Already, oil-spill funds have spared 66,000 acres of forest by adding them to the state-park system,

While some federal and state officials are now actively helping to save the Alaska rainforest, others are still forcing taxpayers to subsidize its destruction, In 1992, Tongass National Forest lost $64 million grinding huge swaths of forest into pulp for the rayon industry, The Sierra Club is seeking real timber reform for the Tongass, as well as for Chugach National Forest surrounding Prince William Sound, which at present is largely unprotected.

Rainforest logging is perfectly in step with the boomand-bust rhythm of the Alaskan economy. Two centuries ago Russian fur traders enslaved the Aleuts, forcing them to hunt the sea otter to near-extinction. Next, whales were slaughtered for lamp oil and ladies' corsets. Successive gold rushes left toxic mine tailings and polluted streams. Now the forest is being leveled at a record rate, with the trees that escape pulping exported as unprocessed logs to Japan, Korea, and China. On this last frontier, the goal is still to exploit local resources for a quick fortune.

The Sierra Club has a grander vision. In it, the most critical parts of the parks, refuges, and forests along the western Gulf of Alaska are free of developed inholdings. Wildlife habitat is guaranteed through new wilderness areas and wild-and-scenic rivers (more than 100 of which are eligible in Tongass National Forest alone). A healthy forest provides a sustainable economy--fishing, recreation, and a smaller-scale wood-products industry. Joining the Club in this endeavor are seven other organizations in the Alaska Rainforest Campaign, all dedicated to preserving one of the greatest temperate rainforests of North America.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Alaska Rainforest Ecoregion
Date:Mar 1, 1994
Previous Article:Where fish built a forest.
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