Since there are no easy answers now, let's have a 25-year moratorium on road building...that should please environmentalists, the timber industry and, what is most important, future generations.
With all the debate whether the Tongass Forest should be included in the "roadless" ruling, I thought about an archaeology project on Heceta Island about 10 years ago. Every morning, we had to walk a few miles to the excavation site. Heceta Island, like several other islands in the Tongass, has an extensive network of roads. As we passed older clear-cuts, we could see little spruce and hemlock growing. They were about three feet high, with trunks about an inch and a half in diameter. Then we went through a stand of old-growth forest. It was a different world. Here the trees were two to three feet in diameter, and over 200 years old. We saw old stumps, more than five feet in diameter, where trees had been cut many years ago. Those trees must have been 500 years old when they were taken.
Old trees that had fallen were nurseries for the next generation. Little trees were springing up from them. Nothing is wasted in an old-growth forest. Since the Tongass is a rain forest, fires are not a major problem. Under the high canopy of the tall old trees, the ground was wet and full of animal tracks. Obviously, the old-growth forest is home to a variety of animals. What an experience! It was like being on another planet compared to the barren clear-cut areas.
I asked myself, do we need more roads? There must be hundreds of miles of roads in the Tongass already. The Goldbelt Corp., logged some of its lands, using selective cutting and removed the trees with helicopters. They didn't need roads. They made a profit without the cost and destruction that goes with road building and clear-cutting.
After thinking about this "roadless" question, I stopped by to see our great-granddaughter, Avery. She is almost 2 years old and is a bright little girl. I hope that someday she can hike in the remaining old-growth forest. Twenty years from now, the clear-cut areas may support small trees, but it would take several hundred years to replace the old-growth forest that was there. These areas might become tree farms, but not forests.
I hope that the little children of today may someday share the experience that many of us have had by walking and camping in an old-growth forest. The surviving old-growth timber is really a national treasure that belongs to our children and grandchildren. It is their forest too.
Certainly, timber is worth money. But wouldn't it be better to leave the trees standing, to filter water that will flow into productive salmon streams and reduce soil erosion? Twenty-five years from now, there will be better logging methods, new processing technologies for value-added manufacturing. Why should we send our logs and jobs elsewhere right now? Tourists come here because it is one of the few places left in the world where they can find beautiful old spruce and hemlock and plants and animals that live among them. People enjoy hiking, camping and fishing in the Tongass. Isn't this multiple use better than just simply building roads and cutting trees?
Why do we have to decide right now whether to build more roads? What's the rush? The trees aren't going anywhere. If we don't destroy them, they will be around a long time. If a few old trees die and start to decay, they will nourish new trees, that's the way the forest works. Remember, "Haste makes waste." Let's take our time and do it right.
So I have a modest proposal. Since there are no easy answers now, let's have a 25-year moratorium on road building in the Tongass Forest. That should please environmentalists, the timber industry and, what is most important, future generations. It would not be an end to building road in the Tongass. Let's not do something short-sighted that we and our grandchildren might live to regret.
After 25 years, Avery and children her age will be adults. I have faith in these young children. If we give them a good education, they will be smart enough to base their decision on better information. Most of all, they have a right to inherit a living, productive old-growth forest. Let them decide if there should be more roads in the Tongass.
Wallace M. Olson, of Juneau, is a retired professor of archeology at the University of Alaska Southeast.