Putting Southeast's environment first

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2010

The recent public relations campaign against the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council by the Kensington Mine and groups such as First Things First uses myth and selfish appeals in its attempts to vilify environmentalists.

Many letter-writers hearken back to the lost Southeast timber industry, blaming its demise on conservationists. The fact is, the industry was always dependent on government subsidies. Corporate logging in Alaska was based on a sweetheart deal granted to two multinational corporations back in the 1950s and subsidized to the tune of $40 million a year.

When Americans all over the country began to object to having their national forest roaded and cut at taxpayer expense, the industry went the way that the free market determined it should. Even Sealaska Corp., who ravaged its lands with few environmental strictures, could only make money by exporting its logs in the round, providing sporadic temporary work for its shareholders. Having destroyed most of its own timber land, Sealaska is now trying to grab prime U.S. Forest Service land to cut. That's not an industry; it's a strip mine.

Groups such as First Things First seem to long for a world without conservationists. To see what that world looks like, I recommend a trip to the Oregon coast. Logging was unrestrained there, but logging towns such as Coos Bay were dying long before conservationists mobilized to save the last few scraps of wilderness in the '90s, simply because they ran out of high-grade timber. What remains is a diminished land, filled with clear cuts, near-empty streams, and depressed logging towns with few jobs. The once-abundant commercial salmon fishery is now a remnant of its former self, as it is in California and much of Washington. This is the future that groups such as First Things First envision for Southeast Alaska.

Environments do not collapse all at once; they collapse incrementally, over time, as the threshold for one species after another is breached. It takes tremendous foresight to prevent this process. I am grateful for the work that SEACC does, and for any grants they can get to defend the taxpayers' land from well-funded corporations, both local or Outside.

Once, the entire United States was as rich and pristine as Alaska. Now, we're about the last place left with an unimpaired natural environment. The Tongass is not a private reserve for anyone to exploit to suit themselves; it is a national treasure. And that's putting first things first.

Stuart Cohen


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