Secrets of the rainforest.
Along the way, Nelson, who makes his living as a nature writer and anthropologist, kills the engine as humpback whales glide within yards of the boat, drizzling us with spray from their blowholes. Behind us, a stubborn fog is lifting to reveal the icy mountains beyond Sitka.
Within 45 minutes, Nelson is easing the boat into a small bay near a black sand beach strewn with bleached spruce, hemlock, and cedar logs, timber-operation escapees that have washed up with the tides. As we enter the woods, the challenge is to not be overwhelmed by its chaos and details. Organisms are tied so closely to one another that the ground, a Nerf-like 18-inch layer of gnarled roots and decaying vegetation, seems to be alive. The forest itself is a grand tangle, the greenest place that I have ever seen. Water drips slowly from mosses hanging off branches. Floppy-leafed skunk cabbage and matted bunches of grasses cover the forest floor, while mosses and lichens blanket fallen tree trunks like a pelt.
Even before the dead trees decompose into the soil, young trees pull nutrients from them, as evidenced by a nurse log lined with hemlock seedlings. It is all shaded by the rain forest's classic broken canopy, created by trees of different ages and therefore different heights.
While tropical rain forests have the greatest diversity. of organisms of any ecosystem on earth, temperate rain forests (which are found in regions receiving more than 55 inches of annual precipitation, with mean annual temperatures of 40 [degrees] to 54 [degrees]) have the greatest biomass. Nowhere is there such density of life, the product of centuries of uninterrupted growth.
Clear-cutting would destroy it all in a matter of days.
For many Alaskans, the notion of logging southeast Alaska's old-growth rain forests is an affront to nature. For others, the old-growth represents a valuable renewable resource that should be developed. This philosophical schism underlies the rancorous debate that has followed the release of the U.S. Forest Service's latest Tongass land management plan.
The future of the Tongass National Forest, the country's largest, is of great regional importance, but it has global implications as well. Lying along a narrow coastal band backed by mountains that top out at 18,000 feet, the Tongass is the earth's largest intact temperate rain forest and one of the continent's great wildernesses. Never widespread, temperate rain forests today cover only about 3 percent as much land as tropical rain forests; half of the world's temperate rain forests have already been destroyed. The ecosystem is now limited to Tasmania, New Zealand, Chile, and North America - from Northern California to Alaska's Kodiak Island. The Tongass alone encompasses about 29 percent of the world's surviving unlogged temperate rain forest habitat.
Within this cover of mist and beneath ancient Sitka spruce, cedar, and hemlock live some of the world's most impressive wildlife populations - brown bears, huge runs of salmon, bald eagles, rare wolves - as well as 95,000 Alaskans.
Residents here have a far deeper involvement with their land than Americans in the Lower 48, known to Alaskans simply as "outside." In large numbers, they turn to the rain forest not only for recreation but also for work and food. Southeast Alaskans, Nelson says, have an organic link to the land.
"Nothing is missing here," he says. "Every plant and animal species that was ever here is still here. That completeness includes people as a working part of the ecosystem. It's a continuation of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. People in southeast Alaska aren't going back to nature. They never left it."
The forest that I am exploring with Nelson is filled with reminders of denizens, past and present. It has never been commercially logged. There are bear claw marks on trees and old ax marks made by the Tlingit, the rain forest's historic inhabitants.
Nelson explains that wherever the Tlingit made camp, they would chop off a section of bark on a Sitka spruce so that pitch ran down over the wood. When they returned to the camping spot, they would cut this sap-covered wood and use it to start campfires because it is more flammable than regular green wood.
Nelson then points out a bear path nearby. It consists of a series of huge paw prints worn into the vegetation, as if a bear had stepped deliberately into the exact same spots every time it wandered through the forest. Nelson and others speculate that bears actually groom these prints, as if leaving a kind of signature. "What I find intriguing," says Nelson, "is that it almost seems to be a reflection of a very ancient tradition among bears."
Our route proves less precise. After tightrope-walking across fallen logs that bridge a ravine, we emerge into a clearing, a peat bog habitat known as muskeg. In the muskeg, the soil is too wet and acidic for most of the forest's plants. The land is marked by small pools and streams flowing with tannin-tinted water.
The ground squishes and oozes water with each step. Then suddenly I feel as though the muskeg has grabbed me by the ankle. I hear a great big sucking sound, to borrow a phrase, and sink nearly thigh-deep into the ground. I pull up my foot, only to have my knee-high rubber boot remain in the bog as I step out. I take another step and lose the other boot. After a day of having Nelson reveal a new world to me, I finally manage to broaden his horizons.
He comes upon me, standing in my soaking socks as I stare forlornly at my boots, totally swallowed except for an inch at the top. "Now that's something I've never seen before," he laughs.
Like the muskeg, the Tongass itself is a bit of a quagmire. That comes as no surprise: in a sense the Tongass is the culmination of centuries of change in North America, a last frontier for wildlife and loggers alike.
A staffer with the Alaska Rainforest Campaign recalls a meeting in Hoonah where an exasperated logger said, "You chased me out of California, you chased me out of Oregon, then you chased me out of Washington, and now you're chasing me out of Alaska. So I'm going north." The staffer adds, "Well, the thing is, there's no north from here."
In practical terms, one of the Forest Service's most daunting tasks is to preserve a rare ecosystem while also allowing a timber harvest that will support the regional logging industry. Key provisions of the Tongass land management plan include:
* Harvesting 475,000 acres of old-growth forest over the next 100 years, while increasing the amount of protected acreage.
* Protecting more than 500 new miles of rivers and establishing 1,000-foot logging-free buffer zones along beaches and river mouths to reduce erosion.
* Allowing annual harvests of as much as 267 million board feet of timber from mostly old-growth stands - more than double last year's harvest, but about half of that allowed under the previous plan.
When the Forest Service released this plan in late May, buzz saws weren't the only things spinning in southeast Alaska. Rain forest residents on both sides of the logging question, from Ketchikan to Kodiak Island, harshly criticized the plan.
Environmental groups argued that it ignored an overwhelming public desire for increased habitat protection and reduced logging levels. Specifically, they charged that the plan would open up huge tracts of previously untouched old-growth trees to clear-cutting rather than limit logging to second-growth areas and watersheds that have already been subjected to logging and road building. At risk, they said, is not just forest habitat: also endangered are the salmon fishery, which helps feed rain forest residents and the Alaska economy, and the state's tourism, which depends largely on providing visitors with limitless vistas of unspoiled wilderness.
Members of Alaska's congressional delegation and the logging industry counter that the planned restrictions on the timber harvest are too extreme. They point out that as recently as the early 1990s, loggers cut an estimated 400 million board feet of old-growth Tongass timber a year.
At stake are 1,600 timber industry jobs, says Jack Phelps, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a forest products trade group. By comparison, in 1991, he says, some 4,000 Alaskans worked in the logging industry.
"We don't believe that there is any evidence that an industrial-level harvest is harmful," says Phelps. "Why should second- and third-generation families give up their homes and jobs? If somehow you could prove to those folks, with a reasonable burden of proof, that by God, if you don't do this, the rain forest will be destroyed, you might have a different reaction. But that burden hasn't been met, Less than 500,000 acres [of old-growth] have been harvested out of 10 million acres."
Those in the environmental community question the 10 million acre figure. The Tongass National Forest encompasses nearly 17 million acres of land. ranging from old-growth forests to rock-and-ice fields to muskeg and scrub, but only about a third of the acreage is considered usable for commercial logging.
But according to new definitions in the Forest Service's revised plan, only 1.4 million of the Tongass's loggable acres are defined as "high-volume" old-growth forest; the previous plan and classification system had described only 680,000 acres as high-volume. Not surprisingly, it is that 680,000 acres, about 4 percent of the overall forest, that environmentalists say is most valuable to wildlife and that the timber industry says is most valuable for harvest. In short, everyone wants the same land.
From a logging perspective, clear-cutting is the method of choice because it is quick and cost-effective. Logging advocates also cite studies suggesting that clear-cutting, while "not aesthetically uplifting," as Mark Rey, an aide to Senator Frank Murkowski, puts it, is compatible with rain forest ecology.
For example, Rey and others contend that clear-cutting is "relatively comparable" to windstorms, which, they say, can actually benefit deer and other wildlife by occasionally clearing out dense sections of forest for animals.
But the pattern in nature is different, counters Matthew D. Kirchhoff, a deer research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Ninety-five percent of the time," he says, "only one or two trees go down in a windstorm."
"Clear-cutting doesn't mimic the forest's natural disturbance pattern," adds David Person, a Ph.D. candidate in wildlife biology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. "Massive-scale clear-cuts are alien to the forest."
After a clear-cut, there is initially plenty of new forage for wildlife such as deer, Person says, although studies show that it is "not as nutritionally valuable" as forage found in old-growth forests. But in 20 to 30 years, he says, trouble starts, as a uniform canopy of new trees turns the forest floor below into a dead zone. It can take several centuries for the canopy created by same-age trees to begin to break up.
That broken canopy is a key characteristic of a healthy old-growth temperate rain forest. Trees of different heights allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, thus promoting nutritious new growth, which creates forage for the Sitka black-tailed deer that feed predators - from wolves to humans. Forage is critical to deer during winter, when they seek shelter in the forest. As the trees catch snow, they limit accumulation on the forest floor and allow young plants to continue to grow.
After saying good-bye to Nelson at the harbor, I end up stuck for a few hours at the socked-in airport, waiting for a flight to Juneau. While chowing down a piece of the airport restaurant's legendary berry pie, I eavesdrop on a number of conversations.
From the sound of things, it's clear that the Tongass debate isn't confined to eco-wonks and lobbyists. The Russians in their new cowboy boots waiting for a flight to Siberia may not care, but just about everyone else seems to. There are people at one table wearing prologging T-shirts, fishermen talking about the coho run, and a man in a Seattle Mariners cap who declares, "Those of us who want to save timber are called radicals. Well, I think clear-cutting is pretty radical."
During a dinner at a Juneau restaurant a couple of days later, several friends try to put the Tongass into the context of other landmark environmental battles. One person mentions the divisive fight over the California desert, where the pitched public argument seemed more like a holy war of words.
"This isn't quite so polarizing," says another.
"Well, so what is the middle ground?" I ask.
It's easy to reduce the Tongass debate to jobs versus wildlife, but both sides insist that the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Besides, Alaskans have a way of arguing long into the night (and the nights can be awfully long here) and still being friends come morning.
But what makes compromise so tricky in this case is that so much is still not known about the rain forest.
"A lot of these issues would not be as political or emotional if we had all the scientific data to hit the key issues right on the head," says Person. Like many biologists, Person can spend weeks at a time in difficult rain forest conditions studying wildlife populations just to get some of the very information the debate is lacking.
Finally, there's a sense that the Tongass is a place that you dig in and fight for. "The parts of the Tongass that have been hit, have been hit hard. They've been hammered," says Phil Pittman, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But the uncut areas are beautiful; they are pristine. It's not too late for the Tongass."
There is urgency on the timber side of the issue as well. "Justifiably, people have come to the conclusion that it won't be over until they are turned into hamburger flippers," says the forest association's Phelps.
Even as the debate rages, you can go out to the rain forest, watch it at work, and recognize the limits of political discourse and stacks of environmental documents to capture its essence.
To see the salmon run in places like Poison Cove, for example, is to witness an ancient epic that ties the land to the river and ultimately to the sea. The big streamside trees keep the rivers cool and free of sediment so that the salmon can return and spawn. Brown bears faced with an abundance of food become so selective that they eat only salmon carrying eggs, leaving the half-eaten carcasses on the banks for bald eagles and foxes.
These decaying remains, and those of the salmon fortunate enough to spawn before they die, provide rich nutrients for the streamside trees, helping to make the spruces here the largest and most impressive in the forest. Come fall, the decaying organic material also helps feed newly hatched salmon until the fry are large enough and strong enough to move toward the sea, and the process plays out all over again.
Maybe there are only two fundamental questions in the Tongass debate, a first that will get a huge range of responses, a second that seems to have only one: How do we protect the rain forest? How can we not?
A rain forest reader
USDA Forest Service Tongass Land Management Plan. To read the plan, visit www.fs.fed.us/r10/tlmp. To comment on the plan, write to Regional Forester, USDA Forest Service, Box 21628-TLMP, Juneau, AK 99802.
The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place (Ecotrust and Interrain Pacific, Portland, 1995: $30) features numerous maps. To order, call Ecotrust at (503) 227-6225.
The Island Within, by Richard Nelson (Vintage Books, New York, 1991; $12), is a wonderful meditation. (800) 733-3000.
The Tongass: Alaska's Vanishing Rain Forest, by Robert Glenn Ketchum and Carey D. Ketchum (Aperture, New York, 1987; $29.95), is a moving photographic essay. (800) 929-2323.
The Last American Rainforest: Tongass, by Shelley Gill, with illustrations by Shannon Cartwright (Paws IV Publishing, Homer, AK, 1997; $8.95), is an engaging children's book. (800) 775-0817 or, in Canada, (800) 663-5714.
Rain forest travels
As locals say, when you're in Alaska, you don't have to go very far to get to Alaska. What they mean is that even when you are in a city, the wilderness is never far away. Within minutes of Juneau and other southeast Alaska communities on cruise-ship routes, the temperate rain forest awaits. Go with a guide, or just set out on your own.
Pacific Catalyst. It's fitting that the 74-foot Catalyst began its life in 1932 as an oceanographic research vessel for the University of Washington. You might say it's still gathering data, only today it does so for 10 passengers at a time. Highlights of the beautifully appointed wood ship's Frederick Sound excursion include hiking in the rain forests of the bear-free Brothers Islands off the southeastern edge of Admiralty Island. Trips begin in Petersburg or Juneau, run from May through August, and include all meals, use of kayaks and fishing gear, and interpretation by an onboard naturalist. $2,500 for eight-day trip. (800) 320-2793.
Boat Company. Two converted World War II minesweepers are used for intimate trips that focus on southeast Alaska's rain forest ecology but also include plenty of time for halibut and salmon fishing and canoeing. Passengers have a large say in the day's itinerary, and the food is uniformly good. Most trips begin in Juneau or Sitka and run from May through September. $3,100 for six-day trip, $4,475 for nine-day. (360) 697-5454.
Alaska Discovery. The oldest wilderness guiding company in Alaska leads several kayaking-and-camping trips from Juneau. A floatplane takes you to Admiralty Island National Monument, which contains one of the largest intact tracts of old-growth rain forest. Travel around the island is by sea kayak; nights are spent in two-person tents. Another trip explores the rain forest on Douglas Island, which lies between Juneau and Admiralty Island. Both trips run from June through September, are limited to 10 guests, and include all meals. $795 for three.day Admiralty Island trip, $495 for three-day Douglas Island trip. (800) 586-1911.
DOING IT YOURSELF
Hiking guides. Juneau has one of the country's best trail systems, and the U.S. Forest Service publishes "Juneau Trails," a booklet featuring 20 routes. To order a copy ($4), call (907) 5868751. The city of Juneau conducts free guided hikes on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer. For information, call 586-5226. For hikes near Sitka, order a copy of "Sitka Trails" ($4) from the Sitka Ranger District at 747-4220.
Trip planning. There are more than 100 eco-tourism operators in southeast Alaska alone. Most are members of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association. For a directory of its members ($5 suggested donation), call (907) 463-3038. Another good source is the "Alaska Catalog for Independent Travelers," published by Alaska Rainforest Tours. After you read the catalog, the company will help match you and your interests with appropriate tour operators for about $100 per week of travel. Call 463-3466.
Admiralty Island National Monument. Only 15 miles from Juneau are some of the most impressive rain forest tracts in southeast Alaska. Canoeing and kayaking are popular in this remote area, as are day trips to the Pack Creek bear viewing area. Call (907) 586-8751 for reservations.