JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ The towering spruce, jagged mountains, vast glaciers and lush islands of the Tongass National Forest are a world away from Washington, D.C., where the forest’s future is being decided.
After four years of debate, federal legislation affecting the way America’s largest national forest is managed is near a final resolution.
Last week, the Senate approved additional restrictions on logging in the Tongass, sending the legislation to a conference committee to work out differences with a more restrictive House version.
The end of the Tongass debate can’t come soon enough for residents of this remote rain forest along the Alaska Panhandle. Many feel threatened by what they consider a foreign attack on their way of life.
″Congress doesn’t live here; they don’t really understand the lifestyle,″ said Tobe Miller, whose husband works for a logging company in Wrangell. ″We’ve been painted to be butchers of the forest, and we find that very offensive.″
″They have no comprehension of the size of the forest up here,″ said Patricia Bickar, a retired teacher in Sitka. ″They think that the whole thing is going to look like the Iowa wheat fields when we get through.″
The Tongass is big, almost beyond comprehension. At 16.7 million acres, it is larger than New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut combined. But only 60,000 people call it home, most within the towns of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka.
Bordered by British Columbia on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Tongass is a spectacular landscape of snowcapped peaks, immense glaciers and ice fields, and thousands of islands and reefs. Much of it is thickly carpeted with spruce, hemlock and cedar.
The forest stretches from the southern tip of the Panhandle 500 miles north to Yakutat Bay, but the combined shorelines of the mainland and islands total nearly 11,000 miles.
The forest’s top products are wood and pulp, most of which are sold to Japan. The Tongass is rich in other resources as well, including fish, gold, silver and other minerals. Its diverse ecosystem is home to thick populations of grizzly and black bear, deer and bald eagles.
Much of the ″forest″ is ice, rock or swampy marsh. Only 56 percent - 9.4 million acres - is actually forested. And of that, only 3.1 million acres is outside protected wilderness areas and suitable for logging and re-growth on a sustained basis, according to U.S. Forest Service estimates.
Only part of that acreage contains the old-growth, high-volume timber prized by the industry and environmentalists alike. And it’s that land that all the debate is about in Congress.
The old-growth includes stands of trees hundreds of years old, which provide valuable habitat for wildlife and shade for prime salmon-spawning streams.
″It is the last and best representation of major, intact stands of old- growth timber in a temperate rain forest in the world,″ said Bart Koehler, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
To the industry, however, the Tongass is an overripe forest. Don Finney, general manager of the Alaska Loggers Association, notes that much of the fiber content of Tongass logs is good only for pulp production.
By logging the old trees and carefully managing the second growth, a more productive forest emerges to help meet the constant worldwide demand for wood products, Finney says.
″Which is fine if all you care about is wood fiber,″ Koehler responds. ″But there are a lot more values to the forest than that.″
In the middle of this debate is regional forester Michael Barton of the Forest Service. What it boils down to, Barton says, is values.
″There’s a segment of the public, both here and down south, that would like to see Alaska preserved or frozen in time,″ he said. ″Then there are other folks who are trying to make a home and a living up here, who want their kids to have jobs up here.
″The fundamental issue is should we develop the resources or should we not?″
Congress has been debating since the 1970s how to reconcile the competing needs of the loggers, fishermen, Indians, tourists and recreationalists who use the Tongass.
In 1980, Congress set aside 5.4 million acres from logging. In exchange, it guaranteed the region’s two pulp mills a supply of timber totaling 4.5 billion board feet a decade. It also promised to appropriate at least $40 million a year for road building and other assistance to make the timber available.
The trade-offs to the industry came under fire in the mid-’80s at the same time as environmentalists raised new concerns about the biological uniqueness of old-growth forests.
The Tongass legislation passed by the House last July would establish 23 new wilderness areas totaling 1.8 million acres, on which logging and other development would be banned. The bill also would require 100-foot protective margins, or ″buffers,″ along major salmon-spawning streams and their tributaries.
The Senate version would add no wilderness areas, but would set aside 673,000 acres from logging. It would provide buffers for major streams, but not for tributaries.
Both versions would end the annual $40 million appropriation and the timber-sale guarantee. The House-passed bill also would cancel two unusual long-term harvesting contracts with the pulp mills dating back to the 1950s, while the Senate version would modify the contracts.
Environmentalists favor the House version, while industry officials prefer the Senate plan. The White House has endorsed the Senate bill.