My Turn: Wolves pull the brakes on logging in Alaska's old-growth forest

“The Forest Service has been selling 500-year-old trees for about the price of a cheeseburger,” stated a 1989 New York Times editorial. Today on the Tongass, the basement bargain continues.

Last year the Forest Service unveiled a plan to cut 149 million board feet of timber on Prince of Wales Island. Of that, 115 million board feet would come in old-growth forest. The sale skidded to a halt, however, when a freshly retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist raised red flags.

Dr. David Person believes the Big Thorne timber sale, combined with the impact of past logging, threatens the island’s predator-prey community of deer, wolves, bears and humans. Though he voiced concerns to Forest Service and Fish and Game staff long before the sale was proposed, he said in an interview, “All of my comments regarding the impacts of Big Thorne on the predator-prey system were omitted by the state.”

After retirement, he submitted an affidavit to the Forest Service appealing the sale.

Big Thorne sprawls across northern Prince of Wales, a heavily logged island patchworked with some of the last stands of old growth in Southeast. It is also centered on prime wolf and deer habitat.

Prince of Wales wolves are genetically distinct and comprise roughly 30 percent of Southeast Alaska’s wolves. Their population has declined since the late 1990s due to intensive legal and illegal hunting and trapping facilitated by an extensive system of logging roads.

Old-growth forest is key to winter deer survival, as it provides accessible food during deep snow. Wolves rely on deer, as do local subsistence communities. According to Person, Big Thorne would remove “the most important remaining winter deer habitat” on northcentral Prince of Wales Island.

Person foresees declining deer populations increasing competition among wolves, bears and humans over a common resource. “If implemented, (Big Thorne) represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community” on the island and place the wolves’ future in jeopardy.

After Person filed his statement in August, Regional Forester Beth Pendleton placed the sale on temporary hold to address his science. Currently, this hold is still in effect.

Additional concerns percolate in the background, as the Sealaska Corporation negotiates a lands bill targeting much of the best remaining old growth outside the Big Thorne sale. Combined with Big Thorne, Sealaska logging operations will further erode the resilience and persistence of predators and their prey.

The Forest Service is using Big Thorne to provide local mills with old-growth timber and to transition to young growth, but the logging industry is not the big player it once was. Today, other industries — namely fishing and tourism — bring in the money and depend on Tongass National Forest management for habitat and species protection.

The Tongass needs a new vision focused on the well-being of local communities, sustainable economies, and protection of our last stands of old-growth temperate rainforest. The Forest Service should halt large-scale logging of old-growth forests and facilitate a healthy balance between Southeast’s wild and civilized residents.

• Emily Mount is a naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic and former Glacier Bay National Park ranger. She splits her time between Gustavus and Pullman, Wash.

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