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Alaska's old growth gamble: will the Tongass National Forest lose its wildlife in clearcuts?

Some old-timers still remember the Pacific Northwest in its glory. They say the salmon were so numerous you could walk across their backs as they swam upstream to spawn every year. That was before the dams stopped the stream flows, and logging and cattle grazing denuded the stream sides. In those days, the old-growth forests seemed limitless and everlasting. That's a faded memory now, as we struggle to save the last of the Northwest's big trees and the species, like the spotted owl, that depend upon them.

There is still one pocket of the original Northwest remaining: It extends 500 miles in a green strip along Alaska's southeast coast. Every summer, cruise ships weave through the Inside Passage past hundreds of forested islands and a green coastline that rises abruptly into rugged glaciers, mountains and ice fields. At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the country's largest national forest, roughly equal in size to the state of West Virginia.

The big ships dock in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka for tourists to browse in knickknack shops full of miniature totem poles, seal furs and canned salmon. But few tourists go into the forests along the coast and on the islands where giant spruce, hemlock and cedar trees shelter grizzly bear, gray wolf, river otter, Queen Charlotte goshawk and other unique wildlife species. Thousands of tiny streams finger down from the mountains and glaciers, and one might still walk across the slippery backs of the coho, humpback, sockeye and king salmon in the narrow stream channels during spawning season. The Tongass, with its abundant rain, big trees and salmon-filled streams, is a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

But this too may be fading into memory. Since the mid-50s, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Tongass, has allowed billions of board feet of old-growth to be logged. The ancient trees have been shipped raw or as lumber to the Far East, or turned into dissolving pulp (for rayon and cellophane) at the mills in Ketchikan and Sitka. These towns have depended upon the year-round work created at the pulp mills.

Two long-term timber contracts between the Forest Service and multinational timber companies guaranteed the corporations cheap access to Tongass timber in exchange for operating the pulp mills and providing jobs. These contracts, as well as clearcutting on private lands, have cost us nearly a million acres of old-growth in southeast Alaska. Past logging on the Tongass chose the biggest trees, most valuable to the timber companies--and most valuable to wildlife. Thousands of miles of logging road slice through the rugged terrain, letting hunters into remote areas. Wildlife populations dependent on the old-growth forests are starting to diminish.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may now add the Alexander Archipelago wolf to its list of "threatened" and "endangered" species, largely because of the logging and road building. Others call for the listing of the Queen Charlotte goshawk, a bird of prey that hunts and nests in old-growth forests. Biologists warn that the chances for maintaining healthy populations of wildlife on the Tongass may grow slimmer. "Species are not yet at the verge of extinction," says Matt Kirchhoff, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "It's really an opportunity we have now on the Tongass to do something before it becomes expensive, both economically and socially."

For years, biologists who warned of an imminent train wreck for Alaskan wildlife were ignored, shunned and even harassed on the Tongass. Because of the political pressure to keep the pulp mills running, managers would not listen to anything that might jeopardize the high logging levels. But now, with a number of prominent conservation scientists warning that the "biological and economic options for the future" may be foreclosing on the Tongass, Forest Service managers are finally paying attention.

The Chief of the Forest Service, biologist Jack Ward Thomas, led the scientific team that crafted the strategy to protect the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. He has told people in the Tongass to rethink "species viability issues" in their new forest plan. Alaskan officials are considering a strategy modeled after the one that Thomas helped write for the Northwest in 1990. The plan has since been tied up in federal court because the forest and wildlife managers waited until the owl was on the threshold of extinction before acting.

A committee of Alaskan biologists has prepared a strategy to protect wildlife on the Tongass before species become endangered. Like the plan for the spotted owl, the Tongass strategy would set aside "habitat conservation areas" of various sizes to be off-limits to further logging and road-building. The biologists call this an "umbrella" approach: Protect the species most at risk--grizzly, wolf, goshawk, marten, river otter, mountain goat, flying squirrel, boreal owl and great blue heron--and hope the rest of the ecosystem survives, too.

But some conservation scientists doubt that this type of plan can work on the Tongass. Dale McCullough, a wildlife biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, says that, in the Pacific Northwest, biologists "were forced to plan at a time when all the old-growth was essentially gone." On the Tongass, much of the old-growth remains intact, and the protection of "larger [habitat areas] that will support continuous populations is better strategy and will involve fewer long-term risks." Forests in southeast Alaska reach across an archipelago of islands and around rugged, glacier-capped mountains. Logging and road-building further fragment habitat that is naturally fragmented to begin with. Species that depend on large forests, such as the grizzly, need vast unlogged areas for protection, not small habitat islands.

The authors of the viable populations plan admit that they aimed to "maintain minimum amounts of habitat necessary" for wildlife to keep from drastically lowering logging levels. "We were very aware of the effects we were having on the timber program," says Forest Service biologist Lowell Suring, lead author for the Tongass strategy.

Even so, the plan may be the Forest Service's best shot at conserving Tongass wildlife, while avoiding the lawsuits and community strife that have plagued Oregon, Washington and northern California. Alaskan biologists are glad that the agency admits that overcutting must be curbed. But conservation scientists watching from the sidelines still see the resemblances to other regions where wildlife took a back seat to timber harvesting. "The people involved are under enormous pressure to maintain high levels of timber harvest," McCullough says. "It would be more reassuring if the Tongass had a better track record of planning for all values." Contact: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, 419 Sixth Street #328, Juneau, AL 99801/(907)586-6942.
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Author:Brooks, Cheri
Publication:E
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Words:1100
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