The more I learn about Klukwan Inc.'s proposal to spray pesticides from a helicopter over their cut over lands on Long Island, the more I hear the voice of my forestry professor: "You can modify, cajole and improve on Mother Nature, but you never want to kick her in the face."
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These are simple words from the man who wrote the bible of forestry called "Principles of Silviculture." Words that echo now when considering that entire watersheds that have been logged on Long Island. And now there will be pesticides known to be harmful to fish sprayed from the air? It certainly begs the question, is Klukwan Inc. on the verge of the "kick in the face," and, if so, aren't there reasonable alternatives? While I can't definitely answer the first question, I can the second. Yes, there is a reasonable alternative - mechanical thinning.
Mechanical thinning means removing alder by chain saw or girdling (removing the bark all the way around a tree) and removing salmonberry with a brush saw. Sealaska uses this forest management practice on its lands in Southeast Alaska. I understand that mechanical thinning costs about $350 per acre on a contract basis. It could cost Klukwan Inc. about $400 per acre because Long Island is remote and encompasses tough terrain. This is not an insignificant amount, however, helicopter time is not cheap either. With a consolidated, diversified company like Klukwan Inc., these costs can be used in the near term as tax deductions (i.e. net operating losses). And in the long term, the costs of thinning are likely to be offset by the increase in timber yield 70 years from now. This is not an unreasonable amount of time for sustainable timber management in Southeast Alaska. All this suggests that mechanical thinning is an alternative worth pursuing.
Another important difference to point out between aerial spraying of pesticides and mechanical thinning is that mechanical thinning is selective while aerial spraying is not. Trained laborers go in and individually select which alder needs to be removed to best "release" the overshadowed spruce. From a helicopter, everything in the drift path gets blasted. The difference is like deciding between a blowtorch or a match to light a candle. And compared to pesticide thinning, selective thinning produces higher timber yields in the future because a trained laborer in the field knows the difference between a low-quality hemlock and a promising Sitka spruce. Pesticides from the air don't differentiate. Pesticides from the air don't avoid salmon streams either.
An additional benefit of mechanical thinning is the creation of jobs. In the interest of exploring alternatives, I even inquired about the prospects of organizing volunteers from the conservation community to do some thinning. If mechanical thinning is a reasonable option for Sealaska, why can't it be for Klukwan Inc.? I urge Klukwan Inc. to find a better way. Seven generations are counting on it.
Kate Troll is the executive director for the Alaska Conservation Alliance and Alaska Conservation Voters in Anchorage.
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