Tongass in best shape ever Tongass in best shape ever

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004 Opinion: Tongass in best shape ever 08/15/04





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The Tongass National Forest, which covers 80 percent of Southeast Alaska, is in the best shape ever, thanks to the timber industry, state control of fish and game, and modern Forest Service practices that are winning awards for its managers.

Let's go back 50 years.

After World War II, the military payroll left Southeast towns. Juneau's A-J Mine failed to reopen. Sawmills burned in Sitka and Juneau. The Wrangell mill was bankrupt. The only government that kept Juneau alive was federal. There were no state or Native lands, no state agencies. Participation in the federal highway and airport aid programs was denied Alaskans, but they paid the taxes. The 40-member Legislature met for 60 days every other year.

There was no ferry system. One way out of Southeast was through airports at Juneau or Annette Island. Travelers from other towns flew in small planes, often delayed by weather, to one of two airports. Or, in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau or Skagway, they could catch a small Canadian Pacific steamer that operated out of Vancouver every 10 days. Our only summer cruise ship was Canadian National's 200-passenger Prince George.

With mining shut down, there was no year-round industry. Fishing was declining under federal mismanagement. The last six years of federal control, the average annual harvest of salmon in Southeast was 12.8 million fish. Canneries burned or closed. There were bounties on wolves, eagles and seals. Wolves were poisoned. Hunters and fishermen viewed the three as competition. The deer harvest was two bucks per season.

Timber was harvested from beach fringes using A-frames. There were no buffer strips alongside streams. There were few foresters, none at all in Wrangell.

The Civilian Conservation Corps had built a few lean-to shelters and picnic shelters near major towns.

Then in 1952 loggers began cutting for Ketchikan Pulp Co.'s Ward Cove pulp mill, and six years later for Alaska Pulp Co.'s Sitka mill. APC restarted the Wrangell sawmill. KPC operated a log sort yard at Thorne Bay, a new town on Prince of Wales Island. It operated the Metlakatla mill and Ketchikan Spruce Mills. The two pulp mills brought $400 million a year back to the United States from exports, 75 percent of it for Alaska wages, services, stumpage and taxes. Our current five-month visitor industry is a long way from matching that.

One of the first actions when Alaska became a state in 1959 was to create the Alaska Ferry System to connect Southeast towns with highway systems at Haines and Prince Rupert. Airports capable of handling jets were built at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka.

The 3,500 year-round jobs in the timber industry boosted a stable economy to the extent towns could afford to pave streets, build schools, hospitals, harbors, housing, swimming pools, three college campuses and hydroelectric generation plants.

State management of fish and game boosted the average annual harvest of salmon in Southeast, all raised in national forest streams, by five times. Deer bag limits doubled. Bounties and poisoning were dropped. Bear and wolf problems, unknown within towns 50 years ago, indicated game populations were thriving.

Thanks to 3,500 miles of roads built by the timber industry, the Forest Service has established 145 recreation cabins, 25 trail shelters, 15 major campgrounds, 600 miles of trails, major visitor centers at Juneau and Ketchikan and small centers in Petersburg and Sitka and overlooks at four bear-watching creeks. About 400 permits have been issued to recreation providers - private businesses - triple the number of 10 years ago. Resorts have proliferated.

Unfortunately, the improved Tongass also attracts environmentalists and journalists from the Lower 48, looking for headlines (like Greenpeace) more than facts. Their work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, USA Today and others - with glaring inaccuracies:

• USA Today says the Tongass "is doomed." Wrong. Ninety percent of the 9.6 million acres of Tongass timber, including 88 percent of the high-volume old growth, remains untouched and will for all time. The small timber industry hopes to provide year-round jobs harvesting about 300,000 acres in the next 100 years. None of the dozens of fish and wildlife species is threatened.

• Two thirds of the Tongass is rock and glacier, the Christian Science Monitor claims. Wrong. It is 42 percent.

• One million acres of Tongass timber have been harvested, according to the Kansas City Star. Wrong. It is 400,000.

• Loggers are being subsidized, Greenpeace and like-minded organizations claim. Wrong. They do not receive checks like Lower 48 farmers. (Congress just authorized $16 billion for farm subsidies.) Roads from harvest of timber subsidize the recreation and visitor industries and communities' infrastructure development.

• The Washington Post claims there is large-scale logging in the Tongass and logs are being left to rot. Wrong. There has been no large-scale logging in the Tongass in 10 years. The 51 million board feet of timber harvested last year is one-tenth the volume of the 1970s and '80s. The Forest Service is negotiating to have logs removed that were left by one bankrupt small logger.

• Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News. He can be reached at

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