My Turn: Tongass held in trust for everyone

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

For several weeks I have been reading Publisher Don Smith's editorials wherein he has presented his opinion of how the people of Juneau and Alaska should shape their future. Mr. Smith has promoted the idea of drilling for oil in ANWR, building a road to Haines, a golf course on Douglas Island, and now more logging on the Tongass. I respect Mr. Smith's right to express his opinion, and I hope he will allow me to express mine.

The Tongass National Forest is a public resource that belongs to all Americans (including, but not limited to, Alaskans), and is held in trust by the U.S. Forest Service. As Mr. Smith points out, the function of the Forest Service is to manage for multiple use, according to the will of the public. The public decided that the 50-year timber contracts that guaranteed low-cost timber to large corporations was not multiple use. When the Forest Service revised its management plan for the Tongass, it received over 17,000 comments from Americans urging protection of the Tongass. Following this, the U.S. Forest Service roadless plan was created in response to the opinion of the vast majority of the American public that supports environmental protection. These are not extremists. They are ordinary citizens crying out against resource extraction that benefits few and leaves a legacy of waste. These are people who have learned too late to value the fish and wildlife resources that they lost. The truth is that much of old growth forest of the lower 48 has been cut - from sea to shining sea. The public realized too late that the Forest Service was not fulfilling its mission to protect the forests down south, and they have cried out that we should at least protect Alaska.

I am truly for sorry for the people of Alaska who have been hurt by the downsizing of the timber industry, and I can relate to their situation. After serving his country for four years in Africa and Europe during World War II, my father was dealt a similar fate when profit motivated the U.S. electronics industry to move overseas. I well remember his stress at being an unemployed 50-plus-year-old with four kids to feed. He got a new job, and we survived. The change was difficult, but we became a stronger family because of it. The fact is, the Tongass wouldn't support a timber industry much longer anyway - the big, valuable trees from the valley bottoms are mostly gone (that's the 4 percent Don, most of the rest is rock and ice), and they take too long to grow back. Cutting the small trees isn't economically feasible, which is the real reason the timber industry left though as usual those nasty extreme environmentalists get the blame.

The Tongass is, as Mr. Smith correctly points out, the healthiest forest in North America, but this does not mean it has not sustained a considerable amount of damage from logging and development. I wonder why it is that the very thing that draws people to Alaska - wilderness - is the thing that so many want to destroy. Oil drilling, roads to Haines, golf courses, and now clearcutting - it seems that Don Smith wants to love Alaska to death.

People from all over the world come to see the Tongass because its one of the only places left where their souls can recall those days when people lived in nature. That's why its called recreation re-creation.

Alaskans should be proud that the rest of the country, and indeed the world, looks to us as living someplace special - one of the few places left without oil rigs, roads, golf courses, and clearcuts. When the Tongass is gone, I wonder where our children, and our grandchildren will go to re-create?

Piccolo is a Juneau resident and a graduate student at the University of Alaska School of Fisheries.

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