My turn: Sealaska is gunning for some of the most valuable - and vulnerable - timberlands in the Tongass

Posted: Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sealaska wants the rights to pick some of the most valuable old growth forest and recreation sites inside the Tongass National Forest. Sealaska's proposal has stirred up huge controversy in Southeast Alaska - but one of the most troubling parts isn't getting the attention it deserves.

Over half the land Sealaska seeks is an especially fragile type of terrain known as karst. The karst is highly porous limestone, and our region's heavy rainfall dissolves the limestone to form a complex network of pits, sinkholes, caves and underground streams.

Many of the more than 500 mapped caves in the Tongass National Forest contain a host of paleontological and archeological treasures. These artifacts and bones of pre-historic animals and humans are providing clues to what life was like during the Ice Age and even earlier.

Water that drains through karst is remarkably clean. Nearby communities rely on that water for drinking supplies. Pure water percolating up from karst feeds some of the region's most productive salmon streams.

With its well-drained soil, karst also produces magnificent stands of ancient spruce that are coveted by the timber industry. Unfortunately, the delicate ground is easily ruined by logging.

When the forest canopy is stripped away, heavy rain erodes the soil, which washes into the underground caves and streams. Losing the thin soils leaves the surface unable to regenerate high quality forest. The erosion can block off caves and divert groundwater flows, which threatens drinking water supplies and jeopardizes salmon streams. Logging operations also produce oils, toxins and organic debris that can contaminate the groundwater.

Any logging on karst has to be done with extreme care, and the US Forest Service has developed sound protective guidelines. But if Sealaska gets karstlands for logging, Forest Service protections will not apply. The state has no comparable rules to prevent harm when Sealaska cuts timber from karstland.

More than 50 percent of forested karstlands in the Tongass have already been logged. It's easy to find examples of severe damage that was inflicted before the Forest Service set more protective standards. Clearcutting erodes the vulnerable soils, so the logged areas do not regenerate well.

There's no question that Sealaska should receive the remaining 20 percent of the land it is due under the Native claims settlement. Everyone agrees on that. But Sealaska is aiming to get some of the best remaining large-tree forest, including large tracts of karstland. If Sealaska is going to get the right to pick different, more valuable land from the Tongass, shouldn't it be an equitable deal for all Americans?

Congress should insist on a value-for-value exchange instead of giving Sealaska the same number of acres in more valuable locations. By taking fewer acres of comparable value, Sealaska could reduce its footprint in the Tongass and perhaps reduce the amount of conflict with affected communities.

Sorting out the details of a value-for-value exchange will take time - more time than Congress has left this fall. Sealaska's bill should not be marked up in this legislative session. To ensure both sides get a fair deal, a lot more science and data are needed.

I urge you to write or call Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich and let them know how you feel about S.881, the Sealaska lands bill. Salmon, drinking water, old-growth and karst are all at stake. Sealaska has had plenty of helpings in the forest; now it is time to save some of the leftovers for the American public.

• Lewis is the Director of the Tongass Cave Project and Conservation Chair of the Glacier Grotto of the National Speleological Society.

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