From a float plane high above Gravina Island, the crowns of spruce, hemlock and cedar interlock in a canopy unbroken, a forest thick, green and very old.
Hidden below, black bears grow fat on berries and gray wolves stalk fawns. There are pink salmon in the streams and chocolate lilies on the bogs. Wild and nearly untouched, most of Gravina Island is pretty much as it always has been, without scars. Without roads.
But if President Bush alters his predecessor's ban on logging in the national forests, as the administration has signaled, Gravina Island will come under the ax.
Not long ago, the Forest Service was in the final stages of preparing stands of timber in this small corner of the Tongass National Forest for sale to the highest bidder. That effort halted when President Bill Clinton banned all logging on federal forests not yet reached by roads.
It was one of Clinton's most far-reaching, controversial environmental legacies, offering protections to forests that together equal a land mass the size of Florida, about 60 million acres.
But Bush and his agriculture and interior secretaries have promised to amend the policy, criticizing the "roadless rule" as too broad and insensitive to regional economic dependence on the national forests.
Within the next few months, the administration will decide the future of Gravina and the rest of America's roadless acres, which account for more than a third of all the national forests. It will be one of the most important decisions ever made on the use of federal forests.
Gravina Island lies across Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan, a city once dependent on the timber industry that now draws about 600,000 cruise-ship visitors annually. From the island, you can hear the megaphones on the floating hotels announcing the next port of call. Local businesses have designs on more than Gravina's timber.
"In a lot of ways, the sale on Gravina is a microcosm of what is happening in the Tongass and the nation overall," said Owen Graham, executive director of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association, a timber trade group pushing for the sale of more trees. "It's got all the same controversies, the same players, the same decisions to be made."
The fight over America's public forests is often cast as a struggle between environmental extremists and rapacious loggers. It isn't that simple.
The Forest Service and by extension American taxpayers probably won't make a dime from the sale of Gravina's spruce and hemlock. In the new century, the fight is less about timber than about jobs and federal subsidies and developers who dream of homes, factories and resorts on Gravina Island. It's not about the trees. It's about the roads.
From his waterfront home in Ketchikan, Steve Seley proudly surveys his marina, his boats and barges, his vacation island, his helicopter hangar and his new sawmill, Pacific Log and Lumber.
Seley is a go-getter. What he wants to go get now are the trees on Gravina Island.
"If there's not a harvest of reasonable size on federal lands," Seley warned, "we're through."
His father built roads for Ketchikan Pulp Co. in the 1950s, when the federal government offered 50-year contracts and billions of board feet of timber to companies, hoping the jobs would attract settlers to Southeast Alaska, part of a postwar strategy to populate the region as a bulwark against the Soviets. But the Cold War ended, and the Timber Wars began.
Tongass National Forest is the nation's largest, covering about 17 million acres of Southeast Alaska, an area the size of West Virginia. Environmentalists worship the Tongass as the great American rain forest.
"We've got wilderness areas inside the Tongass as big as the state of Connecticut," said Jerry Ingersoll, the district ranger who oversees the lands around Ketchikan, including Gravina Island.
Ingersoll is careful not to argue for or against the roadless policy. But he will recite the numbers, which tell the tale of a shrinking timber industry.
Of the 17 million acres in the Tongass National Forest, only 3.7 million have quality timber stands. Most of that land can not be reached by roads.
"So if the roadless rule goes into effect, about two-thirds of our timber base goes with it," Ingersoll said. "We're left with about 1.1 million acres of land suitable for harvest."
A generation ago, the lumber companies were extracting 600 million board feet of timber annually from the Tongass. (One million board feet is enough to build 100 average-sized houses.) Today, the Forest Service's objective is to offer about 155 million board feet a year for sale. Most years, it does not reach that goal.
If the roadless rule remains in place as Clinton signed it, the Tongass harvest would probably drop to about 50 million board feet a year a figure that would sustain perhaps one or two Southeast sawmills, not the half dozen operating today.
So when Ingersoll and his team go looking for places to sell timber, they find themselves increasingly limited. Gravina Island offers possibilities, and problems.
Its potential timber sale area lies within a few miles of two sawmills, making the cut more economical for the logging companies. The Forest Service proposed to sell 38 million board feet from 2,200 acres of land on Gravina Island. To do that, it would allow the logging companies to build 23 miles of new road. It predicts the timber would sell to a bidder for about $2 million at today's prices.
But the state of Alaska is entitled to at least $500,000 from the sale, and the Forest Service will spend an additional $1.7 million on environmental impact studies and supervision. So Gravina's timber sale will end up costing U.S. taxpayers $200,000.
The economics of the Gravina sale are typical throughout the Forest Service. So why cut?
"Recognizing that the point is not to add money to the federal treasury," Ingersoll said, "we're managing timber to provide jobs for the local economy. That is the purpose of this program."
The Forest Service estimates the Gravina timber sale will support 346 jobs, direct and indirect, in the region for several years, and pump about $15 million into the regional economy.
But critics of the Gravina sale, and national forest timber sales in general, question the benefits of such subsidies to average workers and regional economies.
"They're willing to spend almost any amount of money to save a dying industry," said Wayne Weihing, a former employee of the Ketchikan pulp mill and now a member of the Tongass Conservation Society, a grassroots group that opposes the Gravina sale. "They keep saying they have to save the economy. But you know something? The economy here isn't that bad."
Seley will almost certainly bid in the Gravina Island sale.
But Seley's existence as a sawmill operator is contingent on the government. He operates his sawmill on land leased from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough at favorable rents and without taxes on the land. He was awarded $600,000 in low-interest loans from the borough to develop his mill site and provided loan guarantees by the Department of Agriculture to purchase saws and equipment. Seley employs 22 full-time workers at his mill.
The other mill in Ketchikan that will likely compete for the Gravina Island timber is Gateway Forest Products, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection and owes its creditors $32 million. The company attributes its problems to construction cost overruns and delays at the mill, and a depressed lumber market worldwide. Currently, there is a timber glut, and Gateway's sawmill is idle.
Gravina Island is just a five-minute ferry ride across the Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan, with its population of 14,000. Ketchikan's airport is on Gravina's eastern shore and a dozen cabins are scattered along island's beaches.
Mike Sallee, like Steve Seley, is a son of Alaska. His grandmother homesteaded on Gravina, where Sallee maintains a cabin. Sallee, a member of the Ketchikan Borough Assembly, adamantly opposes the timber sale.
"I would like to see Gravina left as some kind of alternative to the rabid development, to the status quo, as a place just to be left alone," Sallee said.
The Gravina timber harvest is also on the minds of residents of nearby Metlakatla, a largely Native community whose population depends on the island and its waters for deer, salmon, halibut, berries, mussels, crabs and seaweed. Since Ketchikan Pulp Co. closed its sawmill on Annette Island in 1999, the town's unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 80 percent, according to tribal data.
"We're not against logging. But we have experience in logging our own island and damaging it beyond repair," retired commercial fisherman Tom Lang said. "In the next year or two, we are going to become a welfare state."
Metlakatla's Tsimshian Indians fear the timber sale will rob them of the ability to hunt and fish on the island after it is logged especially after roads are built to allow more access to the forests and shorelines.
"We had a very difficult winter," said Metlakatla Mayor Sol Atkinson. "Our council had to scramble to make sure everybody had food. The social-service workers were checking on the kids. Next year, we fear it is going to be worse."
Ketchikan's political and business leaders have plans for Gravina. The island has about 61,000 acres; the Forest Service owns about two-thirds of that acreage. The rest is held by the local government in Ketchikan and by the state of Alaska, which manages its timber holdings to support state universities and mental health services. If the Forest Service cuts, the state likely will also allow harvests on some of its land.
Ketchikan Borough Mayor Jack Shay said any proposal for timber harvest on Gravina will include subsistence protections. Many Ketchikan residents support the Gravina timber sale, but don't want to damage the island's resources, he said. With local fisheries at a plateau and financial difficulties at Ketchikan's shipyard, any economic development is important, he said.
"We're not denuding and deforesting the land," he said. "We're just trying to stay alive."
Ketchikan business leaders envision heavy industrial facilities on land not owned by the Forest Service, and beachfront homes, motels, stores, churches and gas stations. The island also could be developed for recreation. It will still be beautiful, but tamed. There will be picnic tables, rest rooms and camp sites.
"I think it is a dandy opportunity," said Cliff Skillings, spokesman for Gateway Forest Products and president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "To build the roads, you need some kind of financial incentive, and timber can pay for that." Skillings envisions a golf course, maybe even a ski slope.
With mining, grazing, timber and private property advocates, along with Western governors and legislators, especially Republicans, already lining up to support an end to the roadless rule, eyes are on the Bush administration.
The Forest Service's mandate is to manage its lands for many uses, to provide a place for eagles and a job for loggers, to supply pretty views for cruise-ship passengers and red cedar for a porch somewhere in the United States.
"Gravina just shows how difficult it can be," said Ingersoll, the district ranger. "Sometimes you're just not going to make anyone happy."
Empire reporter Joanna Markell contributed to this article.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.