''The Forest Service Follies'' by John Skow from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Vol. , No. , March , 8
"The Forest Service Follies" by John Skow
from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Vol. 68, No. 11, March 14, 1988
(c) 1988, Time, Inc. Reprinted without permission.
Great claw marks, the half-healed scars left by ancient glaciers, run
from northwest to southeast across Chichagof Island, which is part of the
forested archipelago that sprawls below Glacier Bay and Juneau along the
Alaska Panhandle. One of the marks is a narrow, steep-walled slash that
nearly cuts the island in half. For 25 miles, over northwest Chichago, the
glacial scar is a fjord called the Lisianski Inlet. Then, where a band of
tougher rock resisted the grinding of the ice, this claw mark emerges from
below sea level and continues for about six miles as a narrow, heavily wooded
That upland valley is part of the huge Tongass National Forest, the
last largely untouched rain forest in either of the world's temperate zones.
It is a lovely, roadless place, a wilderness in all but official designation.
The small, braided channels of the Lisianski River, which runs down the
valley floor to the inlet, cut through stands of huge Sitka spruce, ancient
trees six to eight feet in diameter near their base that top out at 160 to
175 feet. Stupendous numbers of pink salmon spawn in the Lisianski, which is
one of the major producers of Southeast Alaska's $75 million annual salmon
catch. So many Dolly Varden char live in this river that to catch a
15-incher on each of half a dozen consecutive casts is too commonplace to
bother bragging about.
Enormous Alaska brown bears, outsized costal grizzlies, rumble about
this small valley, eating salmon and getting bigger. Bald eagles patrol the
inlet. Sitka black-tailed deer hold conventions here, and for citizens of
nearby Pelican (pop. 276)--commercial fishermen stretching their family food
budgets through the lean months--a morning of hunting the Lisianski drainage
is a trip to the meat market. Hunters in Southeast Alaska are permitted to
take six deer a year, and somebody has estimated--maybe exaggerating, maybe
not--that 30% of the red meat consumed there is Sitka black-tailed deer.
If you want to see this rare, small valley, don't lollygag. The odds
are high that the best of it soon will be scraped bare again. This time the
inexorable grinding force will not be a glacier, but the Industrial Bank of
Japan, with invaluable help from its loyal ally, the U. S. Forest Service.
Alaska is a state unlike any other, and its singularity means that
environmental messes there seem exotic, not much related to the ones folks in
the Lower 48 create. In the case of the Lisianski woodlands, some of the
things that have gone sour, such as a pair of 50-year bargain-basement
pulpwood contracts and the $2 value currently assigned to giant 400-year-old
trees (more on these matters later), are as Alaskan as the humpback salmon.
But the larger part of the blame in this case lies with the chronic
malfeasance of the Forest Service, a bureaucratic coral colony that has long
since stopped faithfully serving the forests, or even the timber industry.
It seems committed to nothing except its own steady growth.
The Forest Service's proposed trashing of the Lisianski Inlet is
worth a hard look because it is representative of what is happening in the
rest of the country: America's 156 national forests, an invaluable and
irreplaceable resourse covering 191 million acres, are being mismanaged as
tree factories by the Forest Service, the huge and obstinate bureaucracy that
is supposed to preserve them. [SEE SIDEBAR STORY IN FILE "FOREST2.TXT"]
Warning: Little that follows makes what is usually thought of as
sense. The attack on the Lisianski woodlands and the rest of the Tongass is
so hard to comprehend because it is not one of those assaults that's
dim-witted from an environmental viewpoint but is drearily justifiable as a
short-term dollars-and-cents proposition. No, the proposed wreckage of the
Lisianski and the circumstances that surround it are both environmentally
destructive and unfathomable from the perspective of straightforward,
bottom-line greed. The Forest Service's record in Southeast Alaska and the
damage it is still trying to do there are so bizarre that an observer draws
back periodicallyand shakes his head to clear the fog. You don't have to be
an environmentalist--just a taxpayer--to ask why the Forest Service is doing
this. Where is the gain?
Those are good questions, better than any answers found in a year of
traveling and reading and listening to foresters, sawmill operators and
enviromentalists. Committees in both houses of the U. S. Congress have also
investigated the strange, wasteful behavior of the Forest Service in the
Tongass. Their answers, too, are more peculiar than convincing. In any
case--uh, just a minute....
This writer, who lives in New Hampshire, switches off his computer
and picks up his work gloves. He is proceeding simultaneously with two
tasks, the construction of this article and the splitting of eight cords of
wood to heat his house. Whenever a paragraph seizes up, like the
transmission of his old logging truck, he whacks at the woodpile with a
splitting maul for halm an hour or so, until the fashioning of English prose
seems much the easier chore.
The writer works at all of his articles in this way and mentions it
here only to establish that he knows firewood, two-by-fours, four-by-eight
sheets of 5/8-inch exterior grade plywood and the like all come from trees,
but only if someone cuts down the trees. The writer has noticed that his
city friends all think that his wood-splitting is worthy and noble, but they
invariably wince when he fells a tree. These city friends are tree-huggers,
which is exactly what the hard-hatted Tongass timber beasts, with their
36-inch chain saws, call the writer when he goes to Alaska.
O. K., that's another week's worth of BTUs split and stacked. Change
to dry shirt. Where was I?
According to careful Forest Service estimates, 26 million board feet
of lumber--almost all of it old-growth, high-volume Sitka spruce, although
there is some mountain hemlock mixed in--may be cut in the Lisianski tract.
That is 5.7% of the 450 million board feet from the Tongass that the Forest
Service claims it is obligated by law to prepare and offer for sale each
year, or about what might be felled in a week in the Tongass during the
summer cutting season. The trees are giant, fine-grained patriarchs, many of
which were mature before the U. S. Constitution was signed. Powerful
environmental reasons exist for not cutting them. An untouched, old-growth
forest is not merely a stand of trees with an animal population, but an
enormously complex and delicate organism, consisting of trees, other plants,
animals, water, sunlight, atmosphere and flows of thermal and chemical
Wait a minute, thinks a man who knows tree-hugging when he sees it.
Never mind that sentimental stuff about "fine-grained patriarchs". Let's
hear about those 26 million board feet of Sitka spruce. That's prime timber,
It sure is, suitable for fine furniture, guitars and piano sounding
So a lot of money is involved?
The answer is an emphatic yes-and-no. The spruce is prime, but not
much of it will be used as high quality sawlogs. Almost all of it will be
fed into chippers at the Alaska Pulp Co. mill in Sitka. The mill is owned by
the Industrial Bank of Japan. Lest xenophobia be suspected, it should be
noted that the Louisiana-Pacific Co., a true-blue American outfit, owns a
second Alaskan pulp mill, in Ketchikan, into which Tongass old-growth timber
is also fed. But by careful design, the territories of these mills do not
overlap, and the Lisianski trees have been promised to the Japanese.
O. K., forget guitars and pianos. Aren't we still talking about big
Well, the problem is that the Sitka and Ketchikan mills were set up
in the 1950s to turn out cellulose for rayon and cellophane. The Forest
Service had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a timber exporting
business going in Alaska. To lure wary capital to the frozen North, the
service gave each mill owner its own sphere of influence and a 50-year
sweetheart contract, guaranteeing fire-sale stumpage rates (the price of
standing timber), with a lot of costs absorbed by the government.
In 1980 a poorly drafted federal bill, the Alaska National Interest
Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), made the deal even cozier. ANILCA directed
the Forest Service to give the two pulpwood companies a total of $40 million
a year in aid "or whatever sums are necessary" to achieve the timber supply
goal. Today, the expenditure, which the service insists should not be called
a subsidy, runs about $62 million per annum. Moreover, part of the ANILCA
deal was that Congress agreed not to examine and approve these costs every
year, as it does other federal expenditures. However....
How could there be a however?
What happened was that rayon and cellophane, hot items in the 1950s,
turned out to be a wave of the past. Petrochemical fabrics and plastics have
taken over. The Sitka mill has lost nearly $100 million over the last three
years, or so its owners claim. That could be creative accounting, but the
cellulose-based synthetics industry may indeed be dying. Unless, of course,
the Chinese go for paper diapers in a big way.
Paper diapers are made out of cellulose, and Alaska's big market is
the nations of the Pacific rim. Anyway, the two Alaskan pulp mills yelled
poor mouth awhile ago, and the Forest Service dropped their stumpage price to
about $2 per 1,000 board feet.
How many board feet in one of those big 400-year-old trees?
About a thousand, maybe two. On the average, the U. S. Treasury gets
about $2 for an old-growth Tongass spruce--about the same as the price of a
So clear-cutting the Lisianski stand will generate how much revenue
for the federal government?
Assuming that the valley is nearly all spruce, about $65,000.
Well, that's something.
Not really. Before the Forest Service auctions a tract of national
forest to be logged, it does a lot of surveying and mapping. It also builds
such necessities as loading docks, roads and barracks. It may also throw in
some nonnecessities. For example, in 1986, when the service completed a $6.4
million logging facility at Thorne Bay, on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island,
it included a ball field covered with sod brought up by barge from Seattle.
None of this is charged to the timber companies--in accordance with ANILCA's
provisions--and if the loggers do any road building, they are reimbursed. In
fact, the Forest Service builds more miles of road than any highway
department in the U. S.
Sometimes, alas, the timber leases that the service offers at auction
don't sell, though the government has spent all that money on construction.
The taxpayers thus own a lot of roads in Southeast Alaska that lead to
nowhere. And there's a nifty new barracks in Corner Bay on Chichagof Island.
It has a weight room, cable TV....
I don't think I want to hear this.
That's perfectly understandable. Nobody uses the barracks, because
the townspeople at nearby Teneke Springs went to court and stopped the
building of a road from Corner Bay to their town--after the Forest Service
had completed 11 miles of it.
In all, the service maps and builds roads in Southeast Alaska forests
good for 450 million board feet of cutting each year, even though these days
only about half of that is sold when it is offered at auction. By last
summer, the Forest Service had a six-year backlog of unsold leases for mapped
and roaded timber tracts.
You've gotta be kidding.
Anyway, according to the Forest Service's own figures, the roads in
difficult terrain like the Lisianski Inlet usually cost from $150,000 to
$250,000 a mile. That seems low, considering the estimated 21 heavy-duty
bridges that will have to be built in the complicated river-mouth area. But
even using the Forest Service's figures, the nine winding miles of road the
project requires would cost from $1.35 million to $2.25 million.
So the U. S. Treasury, by way of the Forest Service, pays the
difference and loses money?
Always, and lots of it. In 1983 the service los 91 cents on every
dollar invested in Southeast Alaska--if invested is the right word. In '84
it lost 93 cents on each dollar. In '85 and '86, 99 cents.
Does the Forest Service do this badly in the rest of the country?
Not quite, but the government does lose $600 million a year on
below-cost timber sales across the country.
And the timber companies don't share in any of these costs?
Of course not. Otherwise THEY would lose the money. In fact,
because the Alaska Pulp Co. claims it has lost money over the last few years,
it is suing the federal government for more than $80 million. Alaska Pulp
wants to be reimbursed.
Now you're going to tell me there's an excuse.
What? Sorry, you've lost me.
There's always an excuse. You know, the good reason that makes all
this craziness sensible.
Oh, sure. The Forest Service is very big on what it calls "community
stability". What it means by that is jobs for loggers. Southeast Alaska
used to have about 3,000 logging jobs, but now, in a sagging local pulp
market, the number is down to 1,800 or so, despite the subsidies. The Forest
Service provides--directly or indirectly--about 1,400 of those jobs, each of
which, the Wilderness Society once figured, costs the taxpayers $36,000 a
year. But that figure is probably low.
Most of these are five-month-a-year jobs, right?
Well, it snows quite a lot the rest of the time.
So with the same $36,000, you could send each lumberjack on a
round-the-world cruise every year, American plan, or buy him a new pickup
truck and a snowmobile.
Wait a minute. Do these figures include the people the Forest
Service itself employs?
No, they're extra. Between 600 and 700 Forest Service staffers are
assigned to Southeast Alaska.
All working hard to lose 99 cents on every dollar the government puts
Not at all. They manage the forests and support the fragile economy
of Southeast Alaska. Or so they say.
O. K., but if tree cutting is losing money, and the pulp mills can't
make money even though they buy the trees for zilch, and if jobs are the only
justification for the logging, then what we've got is a big social project,
with one Forest Service social worker for every two lumberjacks. Does this
Apparently is does to someone. Steve Cowper, Alaska's Democratic
governor, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, the state's U. S. senators, both
Republicans, and Don Young, another Republican who is its U. S.
representative, are all for the program.
Do I smell pork?
Whacking the Forest Service for fiscal wastefulness is so satisfying
that is is easy to forget the harm its policies are doing to the environment.
It seems certain that the agency is putting two prosperous, tax-paying
Alaskan industries, fishing and tourism, at risk with a doomed effort to
support the limping, artificially created cellulose-pulp industry. However,
lost dollars can be replaced or done without; tourists can go elsewhere if
the woodlands are befouled or game is too scarce; and fish can be found in
other seas if Alaska's catch suffers too much from damage to spawning streams
caused by logging and road construction projects. What won't be replaced, at
least until the next glacial age has come and gone, is the Tongass National
The environmental argument over logging the Tongass whirls with
numbers, beginning with the forest's 16.8 million acres, which make it three
times the size of any other U. S. national forest. ANILCA set aside 5.4
million of those acres as wilderness. The timber industry makes much of its
"sacrifice" in giving up those 5.4 million acres, especially now that other
timber-related provisions of ANILCA are under fire. Bills pending in both
houses of Congress would repeal provisions that require the Forest Service to
spend $40 million annually to aid the two Tongass pulp plants and to prepare
450 million board feet of timber for sale each year. The bills would also
reinstitute yearly congressional review of costs and appropriations. Other
bills would undo the 50-year sweetheart logging contracts.
What is really being fought over in those legislative battles are not
the 5.4 million acres of wilderness in the Tongass, or the remaining 11.4
million acres that are unprotected, but much smaller stretches of old-growth
forest. Most of the Tongass is high rock and ice, spectacularly beautiful
but not good for growing anything except lichens and mountain goats. The
Forest Service estimates that only 3.1 million acres are suitable for timber
harvest--that is, the trees there are large enough and abundant enough for
But that doesn't mean these areas are accessible. What can be
reached, even with cost-is-no-object road-building programs, is just a
fraction of the 3.1 million acres. It is this fact that timber industry
spokesmen refer to when pooh-pooh the fears of what they always call
"special-interest" environmentalists by saying that "15 million of the 17
million acres of the Tongass will never be logged."
The only trees of interest to pulp or sawlog operations are the
old-growth giants in stands that produce at least 30,000 board feet per acre.
Today, after some 30 years of logging, perhaps 640,000 of these acres are
left, of which 486,000 are scheduled for timber harvesting. These enormous
old trees shelter grizzlies, deer, pine marten and bald eagles. They shade
the spawning beds of salmon. When they die, they topple across streams and
create pools for trout.
To say that the animals need the forest is to oversimplify. The
great trees and the small ones and mosses and fungi and blueberries and fish
and mammals and birds and insects ARE the forest. The Tongass is many
ecosystems fitting together in ways that wildlife biologists are only
beginning to understand. But the big trees are the living bones.
A decade or so ago, the term "biological desert" was in vogue in
forestry circles. It referred to a supposed condition in which the thick
canopy of an old-growth forest shuts off sunlight, so that no smaller plants,
and thus no herbivorous animals or carnivores that ate the herbivores, can
survive. This notion fit the Forest Service's philosophy, which held that
managed forests were good and that unmanaged ones were something close to
sinful. Managed forests made better wood factories, so it was thought,
because they could be harvested on a rotation schedule, which might be 100
years from seedling to sawlog.
A 100-year rotation is what the Forest Service wants to achieve for
the Tongass. Agency planners don't have much use for old-growth forests
because, by definition, they aren't managed. It is no accident that the
Forest Service is a branch of the Department of Agriculture; woodlands
sometime seem to be regarded as not greatly different from fields of
soybeans. Gifford Pinchot, who established the Forest Service in 1905, was a
fervent utilitarian and a fervent adversary of John Muir, founder of the
Sierra Club. Pinchot believed that the natural world existed for man to use.
And "use" did not mean holding a forest in reserve or letting the natural
balances of flora and fauna work themselves out. Use meant thinning,
reforesting, improving. It meant managing, which in turn meant hiring,
devising projects and securing appropriations--the activities of a healthy,
The differences between managed and unmanaged woods become readily
apparent on an hour's walk with Matt Kirchoff, a wildlife biologist for the
State of Alaska. We are in a suburb of Juneau called Lemon Creek. Just
beyond the last split-level is forest. It looks terrible. Fifteen years ago
the forest was cut, and now it has gone back to alder, a scrubby tree that
grows so densely that neither man nor deer can force passage through a
Our cut trail rises, and now we are in old growth that has never been
logged. The trees rise 150 feet or more, but sunlight pours through holes in
the canopy where 50 or 100 years ago old trees died and fell. Vegetation is
everywhere in dozens of varieties, from the low green plants that Kirchoff
points out as deer food, to great, hanging chunks of moss, to blood-letting
devil's club, to spruce seedlings growing on the half-rotted fallen trunks of
nurse trees. Clear water, trout habitat, winds its way down over sandy
gravel, dark humus, water plants and a tangle of fallen trees.
Then, in the space of a few feet, we are in near darkness. This
tract was was clear-cut 45 years ago, and now even-age Sitka spruces have
taken over. They are healthy enough, about 50 feet tall, and the biggest
trunks are nine inches in diameter. But there is no trace of the alder that
must have covered the clear-cut, nor of any other plant. Nothing but spruce
needles is on the forest floor. I had taken snapshots in the old growth, but
now there is no light for photographs.
And none, of course, to grow fodder. A section of this old clear-cut
was thinned about 25 years ago, but the canopy has closed again. This is a
biological desert, a one-species eco-vacuum. If the grove isn't touched, no
understory will develop until the trees are 150 to 200 years old, when some
will begin to die and let in light. According to one Forest Service manager,
all the woods at Lemon Creek need is a second "precommercial thinning" to let
in enough light for wildlife. This ignores the economic fact that the labor
costs of even one thinning far exceed the market value of the trees, and the
environmental reality that the complex, wildlife-nurturing understory of an
old-growth stand would only have started to re-establish itself by the time
the trees were logged.
Does it matter if the Tongass is turned into a tree factory?
At some point, the dwindling supply of old growth will seriously cut
into wildlife populations. Those cuts will be permanent, because there is no
way--short of waiting several hundred years--to create more old growth. In
the meantime, logging and road-building operations put anything shootable in
jeopardy. The Tongass has a lot of grizzlies, but not as many as it once
had, because of kills necessary to protect life and property, and because of
illegal kills by gun toters who like large, dangerous targets. Many Alaskans
think that having fewer bears is just fine. Says Sitka mayor Dan Keck,
"Logging hasn't hurt those damn bears a bit." But no one really knows
because baseline population studies have never been done.
Eagles, sometimes called cannery buzzards by locals when they are
twitting Sierra Clubbers, are protected by federal law. Moreover,
regulations forbid logging within 330 feet of eagle nests, which are vast
affairs built atop huge old shoreside trees. But the frontier mentality
occasionally turns septic. Last year, wardens found the carcasses of more
than two dozen eagles rotting on the garbage dump of a logging camp on Prince
of Wales Island. The birds had been shot by someone who resented regulations
or federal officials or eagles. The Forest Service isn't directly
responsible for these dead eagles or the lost grizzlies, but some destruction
of wildlife is a predictable result of timberland development.
The extent to which logging endangers salmon spawning beds is in
dispute, largely because the service maintains that no damage is being done.
Bulldozers and skidders once raised havoc by wallowing through spawning
gravel, and the logging of steep, unstable slopes once caused erosion, but no
more, according to the agency. Problems that once existed are now prevented
by new regulations and techniques, or by what the service calls "mitigation".
Perhaps, but state fish biologists are doubtful.
Fishermen are doubtful, too, and they stand to lose more than just an
argument if the Forest Service doesn't mitigate as well as it says it will.
At Pelican, on the Lisianski Inlet, fisherman Reuben Yost, who is a town
councilman, says, "You would have to be naive" to believe that the Forest
Service could build 21 heavy bridges across the river without fouling the
salmon spawning gravel.
As he says this, Yost and most of Pelican's other townspeople are
waiting for Forest Service floatplanes to bring in several members of the
House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. The townspeople are proud
of Pelican, a bright little village strung along half a mile of boardwalk on
the steep side of the inlet, and they should be. Fishing brings in $1
million a year here. Pelican has a fish-freezing plant, a general store, a
shipshape array of docks and boats and houses, a medical clinic, a fire
station, a new town hall, a school system that can see the town's 50 children
through 12th grade, and a bar and grill named Rosie's than can see to them
after they graduate.
There are even some pickup trucks, though the boardwalk is the only
road, and several have bumper stickers that read I'M PROUD OF MY CONGRESSMAN
BOB MRAZEK. As it happens, Mrazek is a Democrat who represents a district in
New York. But he has introduced the Tongass Timber Reform Act, a bill that
would subject the Forest Service follies in the Tongass to yearly
congressional review. Mrazek bumper stickers can be found all over Juneau
and Anchorage, too. Representative Young of Alaska must not think this is
funny, because he does not accompany the delegation, which includes Mrazek
and Mo Udall, the Arizona Democrat who is the chairman of the committee.
The people of Pelican fill the legislative bellies with a good
potluck lunch and then fill their ears with arguments that are not those of
city environmentalists. Several people take pains to say that they don't
like to see crops (trees, in this case) not being put to use but that losing
enormous amounts of money to harvest $2 trees doesn't make sense, especially
when you lose the deer-hunting and maybe the salmon in the bargain. They
don't like the idea of "locking land up" as wilderness, which means a lot of
entangling regulations enforced by woodsmen in uniforms, but some wonder if
Lisianski Inlet could get wilderness status.
A few days later Ken Roberts, the Forest Service's district
supervisor for the Tongass region that encompasses Chicagof Island, announces
that the agency intends to put Lisianski up for logging in the five-year
period now being planned. Road building has been put on hold to give local
people their say. Roberts is a sharp advocate and a patient, polite
listener. He seems typical of the service's field-level managers. Giving
the public its say, and then patiently and politely ignoring objections, is
something they do very well.
They could do their jobs more easily if they were left to manage the
forests without interference, but that's not possible. So they listen to
both sides. On one side, they will tell you, are the environmental
activists--sincere but emotional people who oppose cutting even one tree. On
the other are the timber-industry extremists who want to keep their mills
going and don't care how they do it. Square in the middle, dispensing reason
to the hotheads, is where the Forest Service sees itself.
So from the agency's point of view, the prospect for the Lisianski
Inlet is frontier justice--a fair trial followed by a hanging. It is
doubtful whether Congress can do anything to stop it. Mrazek's bill (H. R.
1516), which would force yearly congressional review, has 150 cosponsors and
probably will pass in the House. If it does, the companion bill to break the
50-year contracts probably will pass as well. The outcome in the Senate is
more doubtful, with both of Alaska's senators rolling the pork barrel. One
representative handicaps the situation this way: The environmentalists will
win either Mrazek's 1516 or the effort to stop the oil companies from
grabbing the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. They won't
lose both, but they won't win both, either.
That's the way the tree falls in the legislative wilderness.