My Turn: What do you need from the Tongass?

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2003

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot." When Aldo Leopold penned those words, the future looked a little bleak for wild things and wild lands. It seemed as if the 20th century would end with no place that hadn't been paved, roaded, tamed. But Leopold and other visionaries had started a movement, one that gained life when he set aside the first national forest wilderness in New Mexico in 1925. Eventually the 1964 Wilderness Act enshrined the concept in law; Alaska's turn came with ANILCA in 1980, and TTRA in 1990. Almost 6 million acres of the Tongass were set aside, along with another 52 million acres in the Interior.

I've thought about Aldo Leopold and the wilderness ideal ever since Judge Singleton directed us in March 2001 to review roadless areas on the Tongass for possible new wildernesses. I have thought hard about what my recommendation to the regional forester would be. I am one of those who cannot live without wild things, and wild places. I have spent much of my life in those wild places, and in the company of those wild things

And the Tongass National Forest is largely made up of those wild, free, protected landscapes. Almost 40 percent of it is congressionally designated wilderness and national monuments. Another 50 percent is wild and roadless, and will remain that way for the next 50 years under the Tongass Forest Plan. Wildlife flourishes in abundance, from half-ton brown bears to four-ounce flying squirrels, and millions of salmon ascending clean rivers and creeks. This is the Alaska of everyone's dreams.

We also live in the Alaska of our daily lives. The Alaska where we get up in the morning and drive to work, perhaps in a skiff instead of a pickup. The Alaska where the fish market is as important as the stock market; where young communities hope to finish their growth with the roads and power lines and other facilities they need to come of age. The Alaska that needs stable sources of income and employment, and hopes to use the abundant resources visible out our windows to meet part of those needs. The same Forest Plan that protects wild places also provides resources for today and the future.

I love both of these Alaskas. And so I struggled to understand why positions for or against wilderness were so strongly held, and why interests such as jobs and old growth were so difficult to find common ground on. As we studied more than 100 roadless areas, as we gathered 175,000 public comments, I listened to positions from people who claimed that bulldozers and chainsaws would fall upon the pristine back country the instant a "no-wilderness" decision was made, devouring vegetation and destroying wildlife at warp speed. I also listened to positions of those who said that one more acre of wilderness anywhere on the Tongass would destroy resource industries forever.

And I knew that neither of these statements represented the reality of Alaska. As the study progressed, I saw that, under the current Forest Plan, nearly 90 percent of the Tongass would continue to be wild land, undeveloped and unroaded; that 88 percent of the largest stands of the biggest hemlock, spruce and cedar trees - real old growth - would remain uncut; and that 4 percent of the Tongass would be available for harvest.

Today, I cannot in good conscience recommend any additional areas for "big W" wilderness. In 10 years, 20 years, 50 years - the situation may be different. You know what? If that time comes, the Tongass will look almost exactly like it does today. At least 9 million of those roadless acres will still be roadless, and will still be untouched. If wilderness is needed, it will be there. And if resources are needed, they will be there.

The protections we have in place make sense to me. Keeping our options open makes sense to me. Giving the 1997 Forest Plan time to work makes sense to me. And using some of the Tongass to produce goods, services and jobs for the American people and the people of Southeast Alaska makes sense to me, too.

Tom Puchlerz is supervisor of the Tongass National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service.

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