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Public forests: loggers of the Tongass.

Alaska can be a dangerous place, I remembered last summer as I flew over forest-flanked Harris River on Prince of Wales Island, and recalled my near disaster there two decades ago.

With a group of student writers from Brigham Young University, I was comfortably camped in a peaceful meadow, watching black bears grazing along the river. And then, in night's black, I was completely surrounded by the highest tide of the year. It had crept several miles up the river, and if it weren't for the high ground surrounding a big Sitka spruce, it might have claimed us.

And now, as the Tongass Reform Bill bubbled and boiled in Washington, I was thinking that loggers on Prince of Wales, and on other islands of the Tongass National Forest, must be feeling similar peril-a high and rising tide.

Surrounded by adversaries with superior communication skills and finances, threatened by a possible curtailment of logging in Southeast Alaska where the forest-products industry directly employs some 4,500 workers (according to the Alaska Loggers Association), many loggers foresee the end of jobs-and the demise of a unique Alaskan lifestyle-at a time when their industry is just recovering from its deepest economic setback.

Interestingly, the coming of the logger and the heritage of serious logging in the Great Land precede that of large-scale mining by nearly a century, and large-scale commercial fishing by perhaps 50 years more. AU are common livelihoods in Alaska's colorful history.

Indeed, the Russians, using three water-operated saw-mills, were clearcutting on Mt. Verstovia east of Sitka beginning in the early 1800s, to construct buildings and ships in their robust "Paris of the West. "

But today there is no obvious sign of that logging, so complete has been the natural regeneration in this particular rainforest. In the town itself, on the pristine" forested site of Sitka National Historical Park along Indian River, few visitors realize they're walking through a previously clearcut, second-growth forest.

Much the same can be said about scenic Ketchikan, juneau, Douglas, and Skagway, aU of which were logged for building materials and mine timbers less than 100 years ago. Thousands of cruise-ship and Alaska-Ferry visitors gaze in awe at these towns hemmed in by thick woods-and do not sense the speed with which nature rebuilds its forests here, where annual rainfalls of 100 inches and more are common.

The loggers? They're bitter.

"The forest," explains Marvin Logan at a logging float camp in Polk Inlet, "is just like a vegetable garden. You don't raise it and watch it rot-you pick it. We're tree farmers-trying to raise a crop like anybody else. "

"It regenerates so fast we don't even have to replant," adds cutter Mike Carmer.

Those comments, though they hit on a key concern, skirt many of the serious questions that now surround the Tongass-issues related to old growth, sustained yield over multiple cuttings, impacts on fisheries and wildlife, and other concerns. The issues are complex, passionately pursued, polarized, and don't lend themselves to simplistic answers.

Sometimes pictured as gruff and greedy pillagers of the landscape, most loggers on the Tongass today see themselves as hard-working, family-oriented, environmentally aware-but outgunned and unfairly beleaguered by environmental pressures generating from remote places.

As a woods foreman at Lab Bay told me in a typically colorful way, "There are more little old ladies than loggers in Yakima-and they listen to the environmentalists. "

As for the extent of logging on the Tongass, Don Finney, general manager of the Alaska Loggers Association in Ketchikan, argues that following Congressional actions this decade, only 10 percent of the Tongass National Forest was left to provide wood for Southeast Alaska's largest industry. "

The Forest Service, meanwhile, is also beleaguered. Directed to make available 4.5 billion board-feet of timber per decade under ANILCA the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) in 1980, and operating under 50-year contracts with Ketchikan Pulp Co. (a Louisiana-Pacific subsidiary) and the Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp Corporation, the agency is accused by environmentalists of "giving away" timber at unrealistically low prices. Meanwhile, some loggers complain of overly strict Forest Service regulations, designed to minimize the negative impacts of large-scale logging.

To provide an on-scene perspective on how the current tempest is affecting the loggers of the Tongass, I visited three camps on the most intensively logged island in Alaska, Prince of Wales. From Ketchikan Pulp's logging camps at Labouchere ("Lab") Bay and Coffman Cove, and from Gildersleeve Logging Company's independent float camp in Polk Inlet come the comments of a species indeed threatened.

Roy Spencer, Lab Bay camp manager

I've seen a lot of changes. We don't log through streams. We was cleanin' 'em [of large forest debris] too good; now they're having us leave what's there-what nature put there along the streams. Instead of skidding our logs directly on the ground, we have to pick em up so that a maximum of one end is dragging.

When [the environmentalists] go back East to have their meetings, they should just tell the truth-what's going on. They've been fighting us ever since we've been here. They're a radical sort of people, but we're getting along better now.

Bob Cleary, bullcook, Lab Bay

I meet planes, run passengers around, make up bunks, haul garbage, clean sewers. I figure I've got 158 chores a day-13 toilets to clean, 13 sinks, 13 showers, seven bunkhouse floors.... I figure I have two minutes and 40 seconds per chore, including 22 wastebaskets.

It's fine to be aware of the environment. But people have to make a living. We have to find a happy medium so we can make a living and have some wilderness left for posterity.

I'm for multiple-use forests-the trees just keep coming back. They've been logging for the better part of 50 years, and you can fly for days over forests up here that haven't been touched yet.

Mary Lamb, wife of bulldozer operator, Coffman Cove

When I first came to Alaska, I knew this was home. The people in Port Alice [on Prince of Wales Island] took me to heart.

Richard lived in a bunkhouse at first, then drove a dump truck, then became a cat-skinner (bulldozer operator). At Louisiana-Pacific, you're given opportunities to try other things.

We live in a mobile home 60 feet long, and Richard and the kids added a 10 by 20-foot family room. We bought the kids an Apple GS-2-they use it for school work. I work as an agent for TEMSCO, the air service here.

Last Christmas we splurged-went to Ketchikan and stayed at the Royal Executive. It had a hot tub and a Jacuzzi and a kitchen. We went out to dinner at the Gilmore. It was our first trip off Prince of Wales in 2 1/2 years.

There are drawbacks-no Seven-Elevens, just one small market. We bought our blinds from Spiegel. But we'd rather be here. You can reflect about life-people caring, sharing.

We have a 16-foot skiff, eat bear and venison, and we have a freezer full of halibut. For our mobile-home addition, we cut yellow-cedar logs on a Forest Service free-use permit, and Louisiana Pacific loaned us a portable sawmill to make lumber from the logs.

Because of my faith, I feel I'm going to be fine, even if this lifestyle is taken from me. But my husband feels threatened. The loggers are vanishing. Eight or nine years ago there were 13 LP logging camps in Southeast Alaska. Now there are only two. If the kids want to go to college-how much can we help?

Fred Bennett, woods foreman, Lab Bay

There's nobody in my family who doesn't log, and I've got grandkids who've spent more time in the woods than most environmentalists. They're trying to picture us as a bunch of rippers and rapers, and that's just not true. Loggers are as close to the earth and God as anybody.

Those guys come up here for a week, so we have to put this place in a glass jar just for them? I agree with tourism, but what about us other people? We've got kids-we're here-we've got to make a living too.

There's been an old sow bear and a couple of cubs eating the skunk cabbage. I brought my wife and grandkids out the other morning to look at them. I've never shot a bear in my life. If you can't eat it, why shoot it? If I need a rug, I'll buy a Persian one. Ron Hull, timber faller, Coffman Cove

I was running a chainsaw for my dad when I was 14. I've been here since 1983, and I've never once cut an eagle tree or been around anybody who has. We leave a strip of timber on both sides of a creek. If we get a tree down in a creek, we've got 24 hours to get it out.

I've been to the hospital many times. I've been slammed between two logs-a broken-off limb went between two of my ribs and hit my liver. My uncle Sam was killed in a timber accident. It hits home pretty hard.

A lot of the so-called "virgin" timber the environmentalists are so excited about is rotten. It's going to die and start over anyway, so why not cut it now and get some value from it?

Do you know what percent of the Tongass win be logged by 1990? Four percent !

The writers don't understand. They show pictures of clearcuts during logging and directly afterward. They don't show 15-year-old clearcuts that are pretty and green.

Floating on Troubled Waters

The scene in Polk Inlet on Southeast Alaska's Prince of Wales Island is calm - and richly Alaskan, at 6 a.m. on a July morning.

Gildersleeve float camp, which has served as home and operating headquarters in bays and inlets all over the island since 1953, fulfills the unique logging needs of the Tongass National Forest's 11,000 miles of shoreline.

The entire camp of more than 30 buildings is towed from place to place as new timber sales are opened. Supported by logs chained together, the float camp consists of a cook house, single loggers' bunkhouses, mobile home for families, a 2,250-square foof hand-made home for the boss and his family, seperate plastic greenhouses, storage sheds, a float plane-even a school for the

children who live aboard.

You aren't on the camp long before you begin to sense a special bond between many of its inhabitants. The colorful and obviously cohesive lifestyle, however, is threatened as pressure builds to curtail logging on the Tongass.

But some optimism-and a high degree of typically Alaskan tenacity-remain. Richard Gildersleeve, operations manager, accurately describes himself as a "very independent logger" and compains freely about strict Forest Service logging regulations.

"I love this country-was born and raised hrer," Gildersleeve says. "I took a toy tractor out on the [logging] cuts when I was eight. eleven, I was working on booms out on the water. At 13 I was working full-time on the bundles. I had to work twice as hard, being the son of the owner.

"Sure, we're threatened. The environmentalists are going to shut big-scope logging down. It's goiing to be small and independent sales only, and that will drive the prices up.

"this environment is not fragile. The forest [even after logging] takes over whole townsites! Sometimes I get in my boat with my bucket of bait and leave it all behind-the Forest Service, the environmentalists..."

It's a good bet that the inhabitants of this particular float camp are looking to him, and hoping the Gildersleeve venture stays afloat in a time of turmoil.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Previous Article:Announcing American Forest Adventures.
Next Article:Woodlot world: January thinning; winter slows a woodsworker down and prunes his ponderings to the essentials.

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