100 years of the Tongass

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

The Tongass National Forest of today started as a mouthful. The Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, created by President Theodore Roosevelt on Aug. 20, 1902, was the predecessor to the Tongass. While the name may have been wordy, the reserve came at the request of a president interested in resources and conservation.

Shortly after taking office, Roosevelt asked George Thorton Emmons, an authority on Alaska and a collector of Native art, for his suggestions on a possible forest reserve in Alaska. Emmons's 16-page report led to the new reserve, which included Prince of Wales, Zarembo, Kuiu, Kupreanof and Chichagof islands. The reserve was later incorporated into the Tongass.

At a meeting of the Society of American Foresters in 1903, Roosevelt described the primary goal of his forest policy this way: "You yourselves have got to keep this practical object before your minds: to remember that a forest which contributes nothing to the wealth, progress or safety of the country is of no interest to the government and should be of little interest to the forester. Your attention must be directed to the preservation of the forests, not as an end in itself, but as a means of preserving and increasing the prosperity of the nation."

Celebrating the forest's centennial

While the Tongass National Forest did not officially become the Tongass until 1907, Southeast Alaska and the U.S. Forest Service are celebrating the centennial of Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, its predecessor, this month. During a week featuring employee reunions, a ranger boat roundup and a First Peoples of the Tongass gathering, the Empire looks at the first days of the forest reserve.

More Tongass stories

• A letter to Washington, D.C.

• Tongass timeline

Gifford Pinchot, the chief of Roosevelt's Bureau of Forestry, discussed the goal of forest reserves in his book "Breaking New Ground." They were for "the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing destruction of the forest cover which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local residents from unfair competition in the use of forest and range," according to the "Use Book," which guided management at that time.

The Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve's first supervisor was William Langille, an Oregon forester, mountain guide and veteran of the Klondike Gold Rush. Langille arrived in 1903 and spent much of his time working alone. He mapped boundaries, sold timber sales, examined mining claims and kept in touch with officials in Washington, D.C.

After an inspection of the Southeast Alaska forest in 1906, Assistant Forester Frederick E. Olmsted recommended the reserve be extended to include all of Southeast Alaska, but only if boats were furnished for the officers. He suggested the new forest be called the Baranof National Forest or the Panhandle National Forest.

" 'Alexander Archipelago' is much too cumbersome a name, and should be done away with, no matter what the new name may be," he wrote. "The Forester's suggestion that the reserves be called 'National Forests' would have an excellent effect in Alaska, where the word 'Reserve' creates an immense amount of obnoxious feeling. I believe it would practically do away with all opposition based on ignorance and misinformation."

In the end, the Tongass National Forest was created by presidential proclamation on Sept. 10, 1907, and then combined with the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve on July 1, 1908. At that point, the entire forest was 6.7 million acres. One year later, another 8.7 million acres were added to the north of the forest by presidential proclamation.

Requests from Lagille and Olmsted for a boat were finally filled in 1909, when the first ranger boat on the Tongass, the Tahn, was put into service. The 64-foot, gasoline-powered vessel was outfitted with lights, bunks, a bookcase and a desk. Over the years, the fleet of boats grew and was sometimes called the Tongass Navy or the Green Serge Navy, after the Forest Service uniforms of the time.

Longtime Juneau resident Dean Williams, 84, remembers traveling through the Tongass on ranger boats with his father, forest examiner Jay Williams, during his childhood. The boats were used to tow portable bunkhouses, or wanigans, into the field, he said.

"A lot of the work they did those days was cruising timber and they took wanigans, house boats, that they'd live on, the crews would all live on those," he said. "They're very comfortable. I spent a lot of time on a wanigan in the summer, when school was out."

Dean Williams remembers tying toy boats behind the Ranger 4 as a child, but the Ranger 7 was his favorite.

"My dad originally had the Ranger 4; that's been retired for a long time," he said. "In those days, they'd let the ranger be the skipper of the boat. Later on they've gotten more sophisticated, they put a regular skipper on board and the ranger would go along and do the work."

George Danner, 87, who worked for the Forest Service from 1952-75 remembers spending time aboard the Ranger 8, 9 and 10. An engineer and "jack-of-all trades," Danner would work on building, dock and road surveys from the boats.

"We'd be out for a week or so and we'd live on the boat," he said.

Danner was sent to Anchorage and Seward after the Good Friday earthquake in 1964 to check on the Ranger Chugach, he said.

"We hadn't heard from the Chugach, so my regional engineer and myself went to Anchorage on an emergency flight that Sunday," he said. "Everything was devastated ... the Chugach was high and dry."

The Chugach, built in 1925, is still in use by the Forest Service.

Dean Williams also helped his father with bear counts on Admiralty Island, initial surveys for a bear-viewing area at Pack Creek, and trail surveys in the 1920s and 1930s. During summers off from high school, he worked as a "whistle punk" at logging camp at Edna Bay.

"Pulp mills were just barely being thought of at that time. They didn't have a lot of pulp mills, especially here in Alaska," he said. "When I was doing my thing at the logging camp, most of these logs were cut down for lumber."

In Juneau, the Juneau Lumber Co. would tie up log rafts at Norway Point and by the current-day cruise ship terminal, Williams said.

"I used to go down here, my dad would go down there and check the timber after it got in," he said. "They'd have a big long stick they'd use to measure it and have to walk on the logs with their cork boots."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

Some of the information for this article came from "A History of The United States Forest Service in Alaska" by Lawrence W. Rakestraw. The book is being reprinted as part of the Tongass Centennial Celebration.

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