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The $64 million question: destructive and money-losing? Must be the U.S. Forest Service.

As taxpayers tighten their belts and join in mutual sacrifice to reduce the federal deficit, the United States Forest Service is writing multimillion-dollar checks to two large pulp mills in Southeast Alaska. Through this and other forms of largesse, taxpayers directly finance the clearcutting of 10,000 to 20,000 acres a year in Tongass National Forest, the largest nearly intact temperate rainforest in North America.

Don't think that destroying an ecosystem comes cheap. Last year, by its own estimate, the Forest Service lost $23 million on the Tongass, and that's only because it considers logging roads to be federal assets. Without such creative accounting, the loss totals $64 million. Either way, it's more money than any forest has ever lost in the agency's money-losing history.

The tax-dollar-denuding Tongass is the country's largest national forest, an area the size of West Virginia spread across a thousand islands and a narrow strip of mainland, together constituting 80 percent of the Alaskan panhandle. It is home to many species otherwise seen mostly in calendars and picture books: grizzly bears, river otters, boreal owls, wolves. An inter-agency committee headed by Forest Service biologist Lowell Suring, convened in hopes of averting a spotted-owl-type crisis, reported last year that logging of old-growth stands in the Tongass must be cut back substantially if these and other key species are to survive.

Tongass National Forest managers, whose budget is directly tied to getting out the cut, did their best to suppress the report, forbidding its release and prohibiting Suring from discussing it at professional gatherings. (As a result, Suring resigned his post and transferred to another forest.) Another biologist called in to review the report foolhardily agreed with it, and for his pains received the worst performance review of his 13-year career. The report's unwelcome news was released to the public only when local newspapers demanded it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Defending the agency in the Anchorage Daily News, Tongass honcho Steve Brink advanced novel "proof" of the theory that wildlife doesn't really need old-growth: "Humans will live in northeast Washington there behind the Capitol and survive and even reproduce, but that isn't their preferred habitat," he said. "They'd much rather live in Georgetown. Wildlife are much the same way."

What makes the Tongass uniquely scandalous among all the beleaguered national forests are the long-term contracts between the government and two giant mills: Ketchikan Pulp, owned by Louisiana-Pacific, and the Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp near Sitka. In a Soviet-style deal cut back in the 1950s, the mills were given 50-year contracts guaranteeing them a profit. When international pulp prices plunged in 1990, the Forest Service, in a thoughtful gesture, cut the price for timber that had already been purchased, and refunded the difference. This resulted last year in cash refunds from the Treasury totaling $9.8 million, in addition to $12.3 million in credits for future timber. Those credits will buy a lot more in the Tongass than they would anywhere else: the Forest Service charges only $2.26 per thousand board feet for timber with an export value of $500 to $2,500 per thousand board feet. It's only because of this bargain-basement price that Alaska's mills can afford to turn the old-growth forest into low-value cellulose stew.

Over the years, Ketchikan Pulp and Alaska Pulp have bought out or driven out of business 102 smaller logging enterprises; they now hold exclusive sway over almost all of the Tongass. Together they have chewed through more than 8 billion board feet of Sitka spruce and western hemlock. Two-thirds of the cut, most of it in the form of "dissolving pulp," is shipped to Asia, where the old-growth habitat of the goshawk and marten is made into rayon, cellophane, and, more recently, disposable diapers.

In 1990, Congress sought to redress the forest's most notorious abuses through the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA). It removed, for example, the Forest Service's mandate to spend at least $40 million a year to build roads, plan sales, and otherwise subsidize the mills' operations. The Forest Service was told to continue making timber available, but only "to the extent consistent with providing for the multiple use and sustained yield of all renewable forest resources." The TTRA protected a million acres of wilderness and roadless areas, prohibited the practice of "high-grading" (the cutting of "a disproportionate amount of high-volume old-growth timber"), and mandated that 100-foot buffer strips be left around the forest's many prime salmon streams. While the House voted twice to abrogate the ludicrous 50-year contracts, Alaska Senators Ted Stevens (R) and Frank Murkowski (R) got them reinserted in a slightly less indecent form in the Senate. Nevertheless, critics thought victory was at hand. "The era of preferential treatment for a single commodity, timber, is over," proclaimed Representative George Miller (D-Calif.) on the floor of the House.

How wrong he was. Since passage of the TTRA "reforms," the Forest Service has actually offered 38 percent more timber than the average harvest amount over the last decade. Furthermore, an October 15,1991, memo uncovered by the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics shows that Tongass timber managers know that figure to be more than 50 percent above what their own forest supervisors think is a "sustainable yield." Protection of salmon and trout streams is very poor; on Prince of Wales Island, for example, 16 out of 20 streams surveyed do not have the requisite 100-foot buffer zones. High-grading continues, a practice the Sierra Club has filed suit to stop. And while the TTRA calls for balance among resources on the Tongass, says John Sisk of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), "the Forest Service continues to treat timber as the number-one priority on every acre of land not otherwise designated by Congress."

The legislative branch having had its own best shot at Tongass reform, critics are now focusing on the executive. (Some critics are actually inside the executive, like White House budget director Leon Panetta and his deputy Alice Rivlin, former chair of The Wilderness Society's governing council.) The moment Mike Espy was confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture (the cabinet department overseeing the Forest Service), Representative Miller wrote him asking for immediate attention to "the fiscal and environmental disaster" on the Tongass. "The Forest Service continues to abuse the taxpayers by giving away timber from the Tongass at rock-bottom prices," Miller wrote. Rather than improving forest-management practices, he said, "the Forest Service appears to have regressed by intimidating scientists and ignoring fundamental principles of wise forest management."

Now is the time, says John Sisk of SEACC, to terminate the 50-year sweetheart contracts once and for all. "That's what's shackling Tongass management," he says. "As long as they're in place, you're never going to have any management flexibility." Breaking that logjam means taking on both the Forest Service bureaucracy, which has an institutional stake in maintaining the corporate welfare state, and Ted Stevens, who is so attentive to the pulp mills' concerns that he demands--and gets--weekly reports from the Forest Service of the amount of Tongass timber released for cutting. But it should be possible, especially with a Democratic president who once pledged to eliminate below-cost timber sales, and a Congress that might find it hard to explain to the folks back home why they have to shovel tax dollars into corporate bank accounts to destroy a national treasure.
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Author:Rauber, Paul
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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