Reopening Forest Areas Stirs Debate in Alaska
Many Question the Need to Aid Timber Industry
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page A03
TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST, Alaska -- Old-growth hemlock and spruce trees, enough to build a suburban subdivision with 30 homes, have been clear-cut and left to rot here at the northern end of the nation's largest national forest.
The trees -- some of them stripped, stacked beside a new road and awaiting a logging truck that apparently will never come -- are the abandoned tail end of a timber sale that, on the front end, earned the U.S. Treasury about $45,000 but cost American taxpayers about $2 million to set up.
That sale is one of 10 that the federal government, in an attempt to keep the timber industry above water, has this year allowed local companies to walk away from.
"It seems crazy to me," said Floyd Peterson, a commercial fisherman who, as a member of the local Tlingit tribe, can drive his all-terrain vehicle across native land to this otherwise inaccessible corner of the forest. "Why do the politicians want this timber cut when there is no market for it?"
The abandoned sale, known as the Humpback-Gallagher sale, is part of a U.S. Forest Service logging program that, on an annual basis, is costing the federal government between $30 million and $35 million more than it collects in timber sales.
Even with the subsidy, local logging companies are struggling to make a profit in this coastal rain forest that sprawls across nearly 17 million acres on the rugged islands and panhandle of southeastern Alaska.
Having ordered the reopening of huge areas in this forest that had been closed to new logging roads, the Bush administration has become a major actor in a growing national debate about the value of federal subsidies for a shrinking industry in this fragile and slow-growing forest. Republican budget hawks in Congress have joined with environmentalists in questioning subsidized road-building and logging in the Tongass National Forest.
The House, with bipartisan support for a Republican-sponsored amendment, voted in June to ban federal funding for all new logging roads here. The Senate has yet to vote on the matter.
The conservative National Taxpayers Union said recently that if logging is not viable here under market conditions, "then taxpayers should not be expected to fund operations of these private companies."
Environmental groups have long maintained that large-scale logging in the Tongass, the world's largest intact temperate rain forest, is ecologically destructive and economically nonsensical.
Here in the Tongass, this criticism has angered logging company owners and frustrated Forest Service officials. They say the shrinking timber industry in southeast Alaska is at risk of disappearing altogether, not because it cannot produce lumber at a profit, but because decades of environmental lawsuits and fickle federal rules have made it impossible to manage a business that can adapt to the global market.
Referring to the felled and abandoned logs at the Humpback-Gallagher sale, Forrest Cole, supervisor of the Tongass for the Forest Service, said: "It makes me want to throw up. It makes me sick to see the product left behind, but it also makes me sick to see how we got to this point."
How the Tongass got to this point is a convoluted tale, governed by shifting, sometimes contradictory regulations about how to run a federal rain forest.
The story, too, has been shaped by increasingly cutthroat world competition in the forest products industry and by the rise of the lucrative cruise ship business in southeastern Alaska. Tourism and recreation have long since overtaken logging as the region's primary employers and engine of growth.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company