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Return to Admiralty.

Moody, magnificent, million-acre Admiralty grows trees and bears better than most places. At bottom, Kirsihhoff and Alaback at Whitewater Bay site first logged in 1913.

Herbert McLean of Eastsound, Washington, a frequent contributor, will guide AFA'S "Tongass Closeup 89" cruise up Alaska's Inside Passage in July.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Is the Alaskan rainforest vanishing? Are clearcut logging practices on the Tongass National Forest causing irreparable damage to one of America's greatest forest resources? The answers-and the fundamental forest-use issues they raise-are at the heart of a classic struggle between loggers and environmentalists.

Twenty-four years ago, Herb McLean selected one such clearcut area on the Tongass Forest for ongoing observation. He has visited it repeatedly- most recently last summer. Herewith the report of this veteran resource writer, presented to shed ongoing light on a forest-management problem for which there are no easy answers.

"Hello bear! Hello bear!"

At a decibel level I think is a bit short of the mark, the voice of woods-wise Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Matt Kirshhoff is nonetheless comforting. His periodic announcement to the Alaskan brownies is wise protocol. We know they are close by.

Here on Tongass National Forest's Admiralty Island, where Ursus arctos occurs more thickly than anywhere else on earth, I have been reduced to hands-and-knees mobility in undergrowth far too thick to walk through.

Green walls of salmonberry, elderberry, blueberry, devil's club, and young Sitka spruce and hemlock trees have made walking impossible. Visibility through the mass ends about two feet off my nose, and if we don't soon emerge on the shore of the salt chuck at Whitewater Bay, our float-plane pilot will have no idea where to pick us up.

"Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!" I call at a somewhat higher volume, hoping our bear neighbors will amble off.

Matt and Forest Service research ecologist Paul Alaback have volunteered to join me in a sort of "holy grail" search for truth and light about clearcutting on the Tongass-a project that for me dates back to 1965. In August of that year, in a poignant and powerful article titled "Night Comes to Admiralty," Field and Stream writer Richard Starnes had made some charges against the Forest Service that fell just short of infuriating me.

Here at Whitewater Bay, whose east end was heavily logged between 1960 and 1962, Starnes had described the cutting's aftermath this way: "No honest witness . . . can believe that anything more substantial than devil's club will ever again grow in that eroded wasteland . . . the magnificent place is ruined for all time. It is ... sterile, barren, and useless . . . ...

Starnes' frame of reference was understandable. As a bear hunter, his sanctum at Whitewater Bay had been violated by big-scale pulp producers based in nearby Sitka. Starnes and his son Chip, together with such eminent hunters as Ralph Young (who once claimed to have participated in the taking of 700 Alaskan bears) and Field and Stream firearms expert Warren Page, saw only post-logging wreckage at the scene. He likened the logging aftermath to a "battlefield somewhere near the gates of hell."

Armed with this shocking article, I had flown into juneau one blustery day, bounded into the Forest Service's public-affairs office, and asked for some answers. A few da s later-just five years after the major logging shows of 1960-1 flew into Whitewater Bay and was surprised, perplexed. I saw nothing that even resembled Starnes' wasteland.

Noting this in the May 1966 issue of AMERICAN Forests ("What's All This About Admiralty?"), I described a stream alive with salmon fry, a new forest of fast-sprouting, nitrogen-releasing alder, one- and two-year-old seedlings of Sitka spruce and western hemlock, more berry bushes than I could classify, deer sign everywhere. And bear scat thick enough to spook me.

Obviously, there was a difference in perspective. Starnes was looking at a "ruined" hunting ground; I was looking at a regenerating forest.

Seven years later, in 1973, I returned to the scene with a group of student writers and photographers from Brigham Young University. Writer Nancy Hanks reported in a special feature in Southeast Alaska's feature tabloid, New Alaskan, "Whitewater Bay was not only reforesting rapidly-18to 20-inch annual growth in 12-foot spruce, 10-foot-high elderberry, and six-foot salmonberry-but was breathing with animal life. Watching us from the marshes were three brown bears and a merganser duck. On the old logging roads was a blacktail deer, and flying overhead were bald eagles, crows, and other birds. "

Fifteen years later, on this drizzly July afternoon in 1988 as the sky hung grayly over mountains to the east, we were here again for a further look, crawling like three salamanders under the bushes, over and around slickmossed, decaying cull logs from the 1960s, our rubber boots mucking in jet-black organic mud.

Having reviewed the bay's rather sparse history, I knew that we white men, coming to Whitewater Bay over the past century and a half for a variety of purposes, were hardly the original humans on the scene.

Here on Chatham Strait 35 miles northeast of Sitka, in roughly the center of the 500-mile-long archipelago that constitutes Tongass National Forest, was a place of significance to people who had come here long before.

Alaska's Tlingit pronounced klinkit") natives trace their use of the land to the Great Flood, and point southward from Whitewater Bay in the direction of 2,700-foot Table Mountain, which broods over the gray- green forests rimming the bay. This, in local lore, was their place of refuge during the -rising waters."

The Tlingit's Leeneidee (dog salmon) clan is said to have lived all year here. They hunted seal, bear, and deer, and fished for salmon and halibut close to the same clam/musseldropped us earlier. As I munched on a sandwich, my eyes dropped to a rusty old trap and a couple of rifle shells on the beach. They, too, were part of the bay's history.

As for logging, "Practically every bay on Admiralty Island has got some logging history; by no stretch of the imagination is the island pristine," explained Paul Alaback.

Curiously, Starnes in his feature-length article had not noted some forest history of significance: Fairly extensive logging, according to a Forest Service map I had obtained, had been conducted around the eastern rim of Whitewater Bay in 1909, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1918, 1924, 1926- indeed as early as 1850 in one location. And yet Starnes made no mention of any of these cuts in his article.

Wait possible I wondered that his prized sanctum, with its magnificent Sitka spruce dating back perhaps 350 years, also included a number of vigorously regenerating clearcuts of former decades? As I reread his article that described the "great, green, moss-carpeted cathedrals" with my historical logging map in hand, I realized that he could hardly have avoided the regenerating areas that surrounded those old-growth places. They, too, must have been part of that sanctum.

Today, with lunch on the beach concluded and Paul's bear rifle ready just in case, we begin to penetrate the thick, alder-dominated shoreline. Soon we find ourselves in an Alaskan old-growth forest, the crowns of spruce and hemlock towering overhead. The understory, in limited light, is occupied only sparsely by fern, devil's club, and some coralroot orchids: good winter shelter, poor feed for bear and deer, and not showing the diversity of understory vegetation that biologists associate with "prime" oldgrowth wildlife habitat.

The floor of the noble forest-incongruously in this wilderness- looks like the trampled pattern of an overused redwood park. Trails seem to run everywhere. I soon discover that they are brown-bear trails-worn over the centuries by the padded, clawed feet of these magnificent creatures.

I am here to learn, so I listen to Paul (who works as an ecologist out of the Forest Service's Forestry Sciences Lab in Juneau), and to Matt (a well-published deer research biologist with Alaska Fish and Game). We enter a somewhat younger forest, above where a narrow inlet leads from the bay to a "salt chuck" tidal lagoon. Matt takes a core sample of a Sitka spruce to see how long it's been around.

"It's growing like crazy," says Paul as he counts the rings in the sample. "I'd give it 120-130 years." That's very close to the money, I conclude as I look down at my logging map and see an 1850 cut where we're standing. The regrowth is sturdy, dynamic.

This particular forest makes a good place to study canopies, a fairly hot topic in post-clearcut forestry here on the Tongass. As Paul explains, "People see deer in recent clearcuts, but we're interested in what happens over an entire timber rotation period of, say, 100-125 years."

To Paul and Matt, the state of the forest canopy says different things to animal and man.

Explains Matt, "People get hung up on the visual aspects of logging. They see the logging of 15 or 20 years ago, and that's offensive to them. But a kayaker can come in here and see a closed canopy-trees that are 60 to 80 feet tall." In other words, the kayaker sees sheltered camping, albeit on a bear right-of-way.

"The point," interjects Paul, "is that feather moss and ferns in such a regrowth can't be used by wildlife-not enough nutrition. "

"There are far fewer deer here than there were right after the area was logged," Matt adds.

As we move easily inland following the bear trails, I emerge from the stand and suddenly find myself gazing upon a forest-framed picture: the narrow, grass-lined inlet between Whitewater Bay and its salt chuck, two magnificent bald eagles eyeballing us as they wheel overhead, a mother duck and her 12 ducklings churning downstream toward the bay. Vibrant forests, most of them "new" following the earlier clearcutting, lead off the canvas in all directions. The gray-green scene is quietly awesome.

We leave the inlet, climbing a bank of beach rye and Indian rhubarb. The earth has been freshly clawed by bears.

"They grub for beach lovage-a member of the parsley family-and for skunk cabbage. The bears love to feed here," Matt explains.

Toward the end of the salt chuck where the Whitewater River begins, we enter a handsome forest-another combined stand of spruce and hemlock. Stumps from a previous cut are scattered over the forest floor. "A small cut; maybe somebody had a cabin here," Matt guesses.

Another core sample shows 65 rings. 1988 minus 65 takes us back to 1923-just one year away from the 1924 cut shown on my logging map. The trees here are 11 inches in diameter and some 70 feet high.

Within an hour we have tramped through old-growth forest possibly 350 years old, and through cuts made in 1850 and 1924.

As we jump a small stream feeding the salt chuck, I am suddenly "at home." We are walking along a level logging road I tramped following the Starnes-disputed cut of 1960. But I hardly recognize it: Over my trips to Whitewater, it first served as an open-space bear walkway where birds sang as in a jungle, then later nurtured a grove of sprouting aiders in their fresh light-greenness, and now in 1988 supports an alder forest perhaps 40 feet high, with vigorous, shade-tolerant Sitka spruces pushing upward some six to 10 feet. In the local scheme of things, the conifers will eventually overtake the alders, possibly to be followed still later by the "climax" tree of the Tongass, the western hemlock.

We range along the banks of the Whitewater River, find a not-too-deep spot to wade across, and suddenly we are into yet another adventure, the earlier-mentioned thicket through which we must crawl.

"The last places to regenerate are the steep rock outcrops and places of heavy slash accumulation," Paul reminds me as he notes the song of a hermit thrush. Sure enough, I remember this area as a log landing and slash dump from 1966.

Finally, some 30 minutes after entering the thicket, we come out on the salt chuck, barely in time to wave our arms as the floatplane begins circling.

Salmon. Eagles. Bears. Ducks and ducklings. Chestnut-backed crows, chickadees, kinglets. And an alder/ spruce/hemlock forest ranging from seedlings and juveniles to old-growth conifers aged 300 years or more, and regenerated cuttings in 23 locations over the past 139 years.

This certainly is not the "barren, wet Appalachia" described by Starnes in 1965. Here, where annual rainfall approaches 100 inches, is a fairly typical story of how the post-clearcut forest rebuilds on the Tongass.

True, deer hunting is not presently big around Whitewater Bay. And yes, the canopy is closing on much of the regenerating forest, raising legitimate questions about nutritious browse for deer. But for whatever reasons, including a mild winter in 1987-88, Alaska's Fish and Game department reports very high numbers of deer on Admiralty.

As we fly north over the Tlingit settlement of Angoon and more recent logging areas, I wonder if perhaps the deer have simply moved to new cuts up the strait, or to older forests where the natural dynamics of wind, landslide, and infrequent fire have opened the canopy for the production of browse.

I wonder if the Forest Service's new tree thinning program on the Tongass will serve to create more understory browse, or if other studies that Paul is doing might lead to logging methods that improve deer habitat. I wonder if I might return in several years to see that forest blowdown and possibly fire have opened such browse areas in second-growth around Whitewater.

And so goes my search for truth in this enigmatic, sometimes baffling wilderness where the wise visitor calls "Hello Bear!" at regular intervals.

Questions, questions. And, I add with some dismay, far more public protestations than absolute answers.

But that's the way nature plays her game here on the Tongass.

So I shall sit back a few more years and wait patiently for the time when I can swoop back into Whitewater and read her latest chapter. AF


While the regeneration of the Whitewater Bay clearcuts has taken place rather predictably, a forest dynamic of far greater dimension and uncertainty is raising major concerns to the north.

The Good Friday spill of more than 10 million gallons of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound has caused environmental and economic damage that may be profound.

True, few trees in the 5.4-million-acre Chugach National Forest bordering the Sound were directly affected by the oil. But like the oil itself, concern about the forest's other valuable resources has spread far beyond the 15,000-square-mile Sound:

The well-publicized impact of the spill upon commercial fishing- estimated to exceed $100 million annually. Of special concern: the survivability of anadromous fishes moving between oil-laden sea waters and fresh Chugach streams, and the survival of critical hatchery stocks.

The short- and long-term effects upon tourism in and around Prince William Sound. By one estimate, the area was visited last year by some 165,000 tourists aboard cruise ships, charter boats, and aircraft, How soon and in what numbers will they return to pristine forests?

Food-chain effects upon fish and wildlife. One example: oiled animals dying and their carcasses being scavenged by eagles and bears.

* The effect of the spill upon the area's rich and varied archaeological resources, which record a culture dating back thousands of years. Forest Service and Exxon archaeologists, moving ahead of cleanup crews, have been checking beaches for valuable campsite remains. The forested area 100 feet back from the beach is especially critical.

The impact of cleanup personnel, who number more than 4,000 this summer. One concern: litter, garbage, sanitary and oily wastes. Another: protecting people from bears, which may find themselves short of salmon and may be seeking workers' garbage as summer progresses.

Many studies are under way, including one by an interagency team led by AFA Pacific Northwest Regional Representative Zane Smith, At this writing, the team is in Alaska assessing and quantifying damage to public resource uses, including recreation and tourism, commercial fishing, archaeology, ana subsistence uses. Its report will be submitted to a Trustee Council by July 1 and will be available then for public review.-HERBERT E. MCLEAN
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Title Annotation:Admiralty Island National Monument Wilderness, Alaska
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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Next Article:Tree farming down East.

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