Trees older than America: a primeval Alaskan forest is at risk in the Trump era

Trees older than America: a primeval Alaskan forest is at risk in the Trump era

March 29, 2018 | More from Food Trends | Tags: , , , , ,

Trees older than America: a primeval Alaskan forest is at risk in the Trump era

Tongass is the worlds largest intact temperate rainforest, with trees more than 1,000 years. But a pro-logging effort could uproot them

At south-east Alaskas last industrial-scale sawmill, wheel loaders stack debarked logs two storeys high on the frozen ground. A bumper sticker on a battered Ford in the parking lot reads Cut Kill Dig Drill, a mantra that many in the 49th state appreciate repeating.

Viking Lumber Company employs 34 people and sustains itself primarily on old-growth trees harvested from the Tongass, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Many of them have been around longer than the United States some for 1,000 years.

Under the Trump administration, the future of these ancient trees is uncertain. The Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski is pushing for more old-growth logging, and has sought to attach pro-logging provisions to the omnibus bill on US government spending that is being negotiated this week in Congress. If such efforts are successful, the country stands at risk of losing some of its last remaining coniferous old growth in order to sustain south-east Alaskas last industrial-scale sawmill.

Bryce Dahlstrom, the Viking vice-president, who declined to comment for this article, has said elsewhere that his mill cannot afford to modernize equipment dating from the 1940s to accommodate smaller-radius young and second growth. If he runs out of old growth, his mill will shut down. Meanwhile, conservationists joined by a growing number of fishermen and tourism representatives insist that the Tongass, and the region, cannot afford to cut more old-growth trees.

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A trail through the Tongass national forest, home to some of the countrys last remaining coniferous old growth. Photograph: Rafe Hanson

Six decades of predatory logging has imperiled the ecosystem, said Larry Edwards, who first came to Alaska in 1976 to work as an engineer for a pulp mill. The forest cant take any more.

Encompassing the majority of south-east Alaskas panhandle, the Tongass is made up of a dense network of islands inhabited continually for the past 10,000 years by Tlingit and Haida cultures, as well as more recent Russian and North American arrivals. Fog weaves itself among the treetops, giving the forest an otherwordly feel. The vast web of rock, ice and forest provides habitat for some of Americas most emblematic creatures, including brown bear, moose and the largest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the world.

While so many of Americas public lands in the contiguous United States or The Outside, as Alaskans call it have been fragmented into campgrounds and tree farms, the Tongass remains largely untamed. Cleaved into existence by glaciers receding in the last ice age, the rivers today are nurseries for the five species of Pacific salmon, fish that fuel one of the globes most prolific fisheries. Wolves, mink, voles and blacktail deer take refuge among the fjords, caves and dense groves of spruce, hemlock and cedar that cover about two-thirds of the 17m acres of the forest.

Until the 1940s, most of the logging in the Tongass was done by hand. Following the second world war, the United States granted 50-year contracts to pulp companies, inaugurating an era of industrial-scale logging. Despite their venerable age and size, the trees were felled and pulped to make the raw material for rayon, cellophane, and fluff-puff a key ingredient for disposable diapers. Ancient cedars were brought down and left to rot to allow crews access to large-diameter spruce and hemlock.

Today the wood goes towards the fabrication of doorjambs, crown moulding, sound boards for pianos, and other uses. About 30% of Vikings logs are exported for processing, some to China.

In 2014 a motley group of timber executives, conservationists, fishermen and Native shareholders came together at the behest of the US Forest Service to examine the sustainability of the practice. In 2016, after hundreds of hours in conference rooms examining maps and modeling timber stands, and much bad coffee, they settled on a plan that set aside units of old growth for logging but ultimately phased out the large-scale cuts over the course of two decades.

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A ship being loaded with logs just north of the Viking mill. The timber is bound for China. Photograph: Dave Beebe

Senator Murkowski has proposed scrapping this plan, reasoning that it takes too much old growth off the table too quickly. Her hesitancy to support the move away from old growth is consistent with her efforts to unlock Alaska for gold, timber and oil extraction. She recently spearheaded the successful push to open the Arctic for oil drilling. Born in the logging town of Ketchikan, she has long been in the thrall of the old-growth timber industry.

Her latest attempt to boost logging involved adding two provisions to the omnibus bill on US government spending one would exempt the Tongass from a rule banning the creation of new logging roads, the other would scuttle a plan to transition from logging older trees to younger ones. The initial text of the bill, released on Wednesday, did not contain these provisions, but the language is not final, and in any event there is no indication that Murkowski will stop here.

Owen Graham, who directs the Alaska Forest Association, called Murkowski an ally, and was thankful for her continued support in the face of great odds. While recognizing timbers heyday has passed, he still believes more old growth can be cut, and cut responsibly.

The industry is never going to be dominant again. All were asking for is a small section of forest. Viking needs to continue on with old growth until the young growth can sustain us, and the 2016 plan doesnt allow for this.

Edwards has been able to watch the timber industry evolve over the years, from its days as the backbone of the regions economy allowing him to make the trip north from Wyoming to work with the Alaska Pulp Corporation in 1976 to today, when logging employs just a few hundred people in the region.

Today, Edwards is president of the Alaska Rainforest Defenders. It was his work at the mill that opened his eyes to the vast, irreparable damage wrought on the Alaska forest. He worries about the effect that cutting old growth has on recreation, tourism, and traditional subsistence.

It was awful then, and its worse today, Edwards said.

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The outer coast at Tongass national forest. Photograph: Rafe Hanson

While Viking provides employment, it fails to offer a sustainable approach to long-term life on the island or in Alaska, which experiences warming as a result of climate change at twice the rate of the rest of the country, Edwards said. Last year, south-east Alaska experienced emergency closures of salmon fishing after the fish failed to appear. While its impossible to say for sure, fishermen and conservationists alike have fingered habitat destruction as the reason for the decline in fish numbers.

Back in Craig folks meet for an early meal at the Dockside Caf, known for its coconut cream pie and loaded potato soup. Talk at the counter focuses on why theres no peanut-butter pie left, as well as the upcoming fishing season. The sun shines, and the water beneath the dock pylons shimmers.

In the parking lot is another beat-up pickup. This one also has a bumper sticker.

I like my beer cold, my music loud, and my Tongass wild!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/22/alaska-tongass-forest-at-risk-logging-trump

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