"A strange, soft storm of white flakes is floating out of the summer sky, drifting past tall mountainside evergreens onto the nets of golden lichens hung from their boughs, onto the bushes colored by salmonberries and blueberries, onto the bear-tracked shores."
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These words set both the stage and tone of a July National Geographic feature article on the Tongass National Forest called "The Truth About Tongass," in which the author details the complex history of the controversy surrounding the timber industry and the efforts by environmental groups to document its effects on the 17-million-acre forest.
The story is based on a trip taken last summer by magazine writer Douglas Chadwick and photographer Melissa Farlow. They tagged along with two scientists, Bob Christensen of Gustavus and Richard Carstensen of Juneau, during field work for Sitka Conservation Society's "Tongass Ground-Truthing" project, a three-year-old effort that aims to put its own researchers in the field to take a look at the forest and the effect of decades of logging.
Big-tree old-growth forests flourish on less than 4 percent
of the land.
Those forests have been the primary targets for cutting from the start.
Nearly a third of Southeast Alaska's big trees already have been felled.
Source: National Geographic author Douglas Chadwick.
The article can be found at: www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0707/feature4/
They said they found that land managers appear to know very little about the role cedar forests play in the ecosystem except that they provide key winter deer browse - while logging has targeted the declining population of the region's cedars.
The scientists "are the best ones to get the big picture view because of their range of experience and range of understanding of the issues and the way the landscape functions," said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the conservation group.
The magazine article, while hailed by environmental groups, has received criticism from those in the industry.
"I haven't read it and I probably won't. Terribly biased. Cancel your subscription," said George Woodbury, the timber representative for the Southeast Conference, a regional nonprofit dedicated to economic development.
Woodbury said he had a subscription to the national magazine, but canceled it 10 years ago because of what he felt was typically one-sided coverage.
"They don't talk to the industry. They talk to the people who want to shut it down," he said. "If they were serious about doing their job, they would talk to all the people involved."
Perry Edwards, a fisheries and wildlife biologist, also was perturbed by the story - or at least the lack of a quote from forest officials.
"Whether it is a regional forester or a district ranger, it is just nice to see both sides of it," said Edwards, who works for the U.S. Forest Service in Sitka.
In some ways, the magazine article already is old news.
The Tongass Ground-Truthing project already is switching gears, from documenting the past to thinking ahead.
"We are moving from a place of being critical of the past to looking at some of the watersheds that have been hit hardest," Christensen said.
This means looking at the Forest Service's restoration programs, such as those taking place on Prince of Whales Island and in the Sitka Ranger District.
"Right now the teams that the Sitka District has in the field are really setting a baseline for a new management system," Thoms said.
The district has been inventorying the area's watersheds since at least 2000 to try and determine what areas would be best to focus restoration work, Edwards said.
During a late-June research expedition to look at work done in watersheds in the Sitka Ranger District, Carstensen and Christensen found that the Forest Service had used explosives to destroy bridges spanning streams - several of which were "fish streams," or streams important for fish habitat.
The roads were originally built for logging projects in the 1960s and 1970s.
"They basically left the roads in place and walked away from it," Edwards said.
Restoration projects are taking place at varying levels on most districts in the forest, Edwards said. With a slash in Tongass funding of roughly 30 percent in the past few years, however, projects are difficult to pay for.
Christensen said that part of their purpose is to help build a case to support the Forest Service's efforts - and hopefully expand it.
The areas that were once the most productive are the most likely to become productive again when restored.
"The places that were logged, they logged them because they were the most productive places on the Tongass," Christensen said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at 523-2276 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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