My Turn: Old forest is a worthy investment

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Floyd Peterson raised interesting questions about clear-cut logging in his April 12 letter. The decision to liquidate old-growth timber holdings appears to make sense to corporate thinking. After all, wood volume in the ancient forest is not increasing, like a bank account that bears no interest.

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Ugly clearcuts

Thorough cash-out liquidation of the forest via clear-cut logging converts this static asset into a monetary investment that can provide returns to shareholders, albeit with some risk. Also, we know that a new forest grows wood fiber for the future.

The corporate viewpoint notwithstanding, old forest can and does produce a steady flow of dividends without the need for liquidation, but it takes patience to use the forest in a sustainable way. For example, lets consider deer.

According to ADF&G reports, deer are in high demand around Hoonah with 1,142 head harvested in 2000, including 782 by locals. Access has increased on an expanded road system and deer are easily spotted in new clear-cuts. However, they become difficult to see when cut areas grow into dense thickets a decade or so after logging, and then deer decline sharply after 25 years. The new canopy shades out the understory as the forest enters a phase informally known to wildlife biologists as "cellulose cemetery" that lasts for 150 to as many as 250 years. I'm particularly familiar with a south facing "cemetery" in Tenakee Inlet where historical records and tree rings put the logging date at about 1916. Average diameter of the new trees is less than 9 inches with only 14 years remaining in the theoretical 100-year harvest cycle.

Much of the forest habitat will soon be unproductive in areas like Hoonah where a tremendous amount of clear-cut logging has occurred in the past 30 years. The deer supply will then depend on remaining old-growth areas and the economics of harvesting spindly second growth trees.

Good local forest land can sustain about one deer harvested per 40 acres, or 35 deer annually on the 1,400 acres described by Floyd. That's admittedly a modest annual benefit - but it should be multiplied at least 100 or 200 fold when compared in value with clear-cut timber. When I sit in that dismal cemetery near Tenakee and imagine the original forest standing back on its big rotten stumps, its nice to know that someone found value there 86 years ago. I'm sure it went to good use, but those who seek their subsistence there have paid for it for many years and will for many more.

Modern industrial agriculture expends huge amounts of topsoil and fossil energy to produce and transport food. Floyd could easily beat the 1.1 gallons of fuel used to produce a pound of beef by doing his hunting 150 miles out of Kotzebue and returning to Hoonah with a moose as airfreight. Aside from lower cost, better nutrition, and superior flavor, it's nice to have a local source.

How can we possibly compete in wood fiber production with places like Georgia and New Zealand where timber can be harvested every 20 or 30 years? Should we try when all the costs are totaled? Slow-growing wood is synonymous with quality - strength, density, beauty and our trees grow very slowly. A friend who purchases wood for a major window manufacturer finds it increasingly difficult to buy acceptable wood in his travels from eastern Canada to Oregon. Since the 1950s, we've joined other timber regions in turning music wood to pulp or selling it cheap. Before long, most of the remaining old growth will be either gone or locked up. When king salmon are no longer converted to surimi, so to speak, any region with ample wood of special quality should find a strong market that can support both environmentally sound forestry and profit. How will Southeast Alaska be positioned to meet that opportunity?

Tourists are another question. Some don't like clear-cuts. Others think they're OK when done for good reason. I gather that Floyd has trouble explaining that reason. One positive comment about cellulose cemetery: After 50 years or so, it works as a landscape "filler" that hides the ugly reality of clear-cut logging from the undiscerning eye of the average visitor.

Leon Shaul works as a fishery biologist and uses wood, deer and other forest resources on Douglas Island.

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