Land ethic needed for Tongass

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2010

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress gives Sealaska Corp the right to select some 85,000 acres of Tongass National Forest land in clearly defined areas in Southeast Alaska. However, Senate Bill 881 would change the areas from which Sealaska could make its selections to include more economically valuable land such as old-growth forest.

Many of these tracts are near small villages on Prince of Wales Island where most residents survive by hunting, fishing, subsistence and guiding. In Southeast Alaska, deer require old-growth forests in which to overwinter, salmon production is highest from streams in unlogged watersheds and tourists prefer pristine forests. If national forest lands near POW villages are placed in private ownership, villagers will suffer greatly. Some may have to leave the homes they worked hard to establish.

Sealaska leaders have said they would clearcut many of the tracts they would select. Clearcutting would produce high monetary returns for a few years, but the devastated land would yield little income for many years. Deer and salmon populations would plummet and who would pay to hunt among the stumps? Instead, Sealaska could selectively harvest a moderate number of trees each year for use in local mills and cottage industries. Fish and wildlife populations would remain high and recreationists would continue to pay to visit a largely intact forest. Total long-term return from a moderate yearly income would be higher than that from an occasional bonanza.

S881 also includes withdrawals called Native Future Sites and Sacred and Cultural Sites. The 46 Native Future Sites to be used for tourism and energy development include Young Bay and Pybus Bay on Admiralty Island, much of which is a National Monument. These are favorite recreation sites for Juneauites. Would non-Natives be prohibited from using these bays and what developments would occur? There are almost countless numbers of Sacred and Cultural Sites indicated on the map. How large would these sites be and would there be public access around them?

In view of the above, I cannot support S881 as written. Congress passed ANCSA in 1971 and Sealaska agreed to it. Sealaska should make its selections from the geographic areas specified by Congress. If it does that, POW villages will survive. However, I do respect the importance of Native Sacred and Cultural Sites and suggest a bill be submitted to Congress that carefully delineates the location and size of each site.

These issues about the Tongass are complex and involve the conservation of natural resources. In situations like this, I often ask the question, "What would Aldo Leopold say?" Aldo Leopold, a forester and wildlife professor, was arguably the deepest thinker about wildlife and forest conservation during the 20th Century. He wrote many wonderful essays including one entitled "The Land Ethic." In this essay, Leopold made the following points: 1) Humans have developed social ethics, but there is still no ethic dealing with man's relation to land, 2) We need such an ethic, an ecological conscience, if the land is to produce all the things we derive from it in perpetuity, 3) The land ethic must apply to private as well as public land because so much is in private ownership.

Leopold's thoughts are summed up in the following: "Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

I submit that clearcutting is one of the most disruptive measures one can inflict on a forest. It is one of the things that "tends otherwise."

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream." His dream was for racial harmony. I too have a dream. My dream is not only for racial harmony, but also that we, Native and non-Native alike, learn to live in harmony with the land - that we acquire and practice a land ethic. If we do, our beloved Tongass National Forest will remain healthy and productive forever, Aldo Leopold will smile upon us from above and future generations will thank us.

• Juneau resident Dick Gard is a professor emeritus of fisheries and a former fisheries biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory.

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