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A fight in Alaskas Tongass National Forest to keep old-growth trees to combat climate change
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A fight in Alaskas Tongass National Forest to keep old-growth trees to combat climate change

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TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST, Alaska The Sitka spruce soaring more than 180 feet skyward has stood on this spot on Prince of Wales Island for centuries. While fierce winds have contorted the towering trunks of its neighbors, the spruces trunk is ramrod straight. Standing apart from the rest of the canopy, it ascends to the height of a 17-story building.

This trees erect bearing a 1917 publication called the Sitka species the autocrat of timbers is what helps give it such extraordinary commercial value. Musical instrument makers covet its fine grain, as do builders whose clients want old-growth wood thats increasingly scarce. In a world whose ancient forests have largely disappeared, this grove holds a sliver of what remains.

Even when the top and branches are lopped off, a tree this size would yield at least 6,000 board feet of lumber, said industry consultant Catherine Mater, who assessed the spruces potential market value for The Washington Post. It would fetch around $17,500 on the open market.

But theres another value the spruce holds: the carbon dioxide locked inside its fibers, in its roots, in the soil and in the vegetation that clings to it from its branches to its base, where berry bushes proliferate. The miraculous process that sustains life on Earth is embedded within its vast trunk, a reservoir for the greenhouse gases that now threaten humanity. The spruce draws in carbon dioxide through the tiny holes in its leaves, known as stomata, and water through its roots. The sunlight it absorbs fuels a reaction that splits the water and carbon dioxide into glucose, which traps the carbon, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere.

The spruce would hold nearly 12 metric tons of carbon, says forest ecologist Beverly Law, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. Its roots and the soil below would hold another 1.4 tons. And while roughly a third of the trees carbon would stay locked in the logs being shipped to mill, the rest would escape to the atmosphere.

This mammoth tree plays an outsize role in the Tongass National Forest, which holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2 nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year.

Walking around its 15-foot-wide base, Marina Anderson, the Organized Village of Kasaans tribal administrator, pointed out a plethora of plants her ancestors, the Haida and Tlingit peoples, have used over the centuries.

Theres watermelon berries, Jacobs berries, blueberries. Theres fiddleheads, said Anderson, whose people made their homes here before this spruce arose from the soil. There are the spruce needles she makes into syrup and adds to salt, and butter. The devils club she dries for tea, and for medicine.

Covered in a riotous mix of pale lichens and deep-green moss, the trees flaky bark is marred by a long, electric-blue slash of spray paint running across one side of its wide trunk. Many months ago, the U.S. Forest Service chose the spruce to be cut down and extracted by helicopter an elaborate process reserved for only the finest trees on this rugged hillside. In the words of loggers, You cut the best, so the best is always left.

The spruces fortunes as ever, are bound in the politics of timber and climate change thousands of miles away in Washington D.C. Its blue death mark might as well be a question mark: Is this tree worth more to us alive? Or dead?

Anderson knows what her answer is.

A seed takes root

As Magellan sailed around the world and Copernicus planted the sun at the center of the solar system, seeds from a grown Sitka spruce landed on the remains of a mature tree that had toppled over. So did the seeds of a western hemlock, the species that dominates the forest in this archipelago.

It was the early 1500s. The colony established here at the tail end of the 18th century, dubbed Russian America, did not yet exist. The Industrial Revolution had not begun. The spruce took root long before the timber wars of the 20th century and the climate wars of the 21st.

Together, the two saplings began to grow, aided by the scattering of soil on the decrepit root mass and circumstances set in motion long before their birth. When the glaciers covering Prince of Wales melted more than 14,000 years earlier, the retreat triggered a landslide, depositing chalky material right at the toe of that cascade where the young trees took root. The calcium carbonate nurtured their growth, even during a relatively cold period on the island.

Prince of Wales is the largest island along Alaskas panhandle, spanning 2,577 square miles. It lies within an archipelago of 1,100 islands, on the states southeast stretch near Canadas British Columbia. A coastal temperate rainforest, it is often wet, with average temperatures hovering between 40 and 51 degrees Fahrenheit.

The spruce began to rise, sending its roots into the soil where it could steel itself against the strong winds that buffet the island. Underground, the roots found fractures in the limestone-rich soil, drawing in nutrients and moisture. It shed the limbs on its lower stem as it grew, leaving its lower trunk bare of branches.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 282 parts per million.

Already, there were people in the forest. The Tlingit had settled this part of Alaska long before, surviving off the sea as well as the woods. Thousands probably lived on Prince of Wales, given its vast resources, in communal settings divided by clans.

By 1700 the Haida another oceangoing people, who lived in Canada and had journeyed as far south as Peru in their massive canoes began to settle here. They traveled in the largest dugout canoes in the world, more than 50 feet long and seven feet wide, made from long-lived red cedars. They erected totem poles in front of every family home, noted Michael Jones, historian for the Organized Village of Kasaan.

The Little Ice Age had enveloped the island, making the winters colder and the snowpack heavier. The greater snowfall insulated the trees roots, helping ensure its survival. As it became the dominant tree, it flourished further in the forests open space. And the sites southern exposure bathed it in light on all but a few of the darkest winter days.

Russians arrived in Alaska in the late 1700s. Illustrations depict a trading company headquarters in Sitka, circa 1827; an expedition led by the first Russian governor, Alexander Baranov, arriving at Sitka in 1804; and members of the Tlingit nation performing a war dance in 1802, before they wiped out most of the Russian-American Company’s original settlement at Sitka. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

By the latter part of the century two Spaniards, Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra and Francisco Mourelle, explored villages not far away for a month in 1775. The Russians came shortly afterward, established a trading company by 1799, and focused on killing sea otters for their pelts.

When the United States bought Alaska from Russia on Oct. 18, 1867 over the objections of the Tlingit it had more to do with asserting U.S. influence in the Pacific than commandeering the riches of its forests.

Soon enough, officials such as J.W. White, a captain in the U.S. Revenue-Marine Service, began to eye Alaskas trees, writing in 1876, When the forests of Oregon and Washington are gone, Alaska will be our permanent supply.

As timber became more valuable, federal officials fought to claim the forest as their own. Between the 1930s and 1960s, they repeatedly burned cabins and smokehouses at Indigenous fish camps. While Alaska Natives returned year after year to these sites, to catch salmon and herring they relied on year-round, Forest Service officials referred to them in disparaging terms such as squatters.

The year 1951 could have augured the death of the spruce. That was when Ketchikan Pulp & Paper Co. and the Forest Service signed a 50-year contract to cut down 8.25 billion board feet enough to fill 1.6 million log trucks. It ranked as the largest timber sale in the agencys history. A second 50-year contract with Alaska Lumber and Pulp Co. followed five years later.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen to 315 parts per million.

At the time, Forest Service researchers called old growth in the Tongass decadent climax forest stands. The spruce tree growing on central Prince of Wales already fit that description. As it climbed, it acquired several of the hallmarks of what naturalist Richard Carstensen lovingly calls age and decrepitude, including delicate plants hanging off its branches. These epiphytes ranged in texture and color, from the orange moss known as Antitrichia curtipendula to the light-green lichens belonging to the genus Usnea, known more commonly as old mans beard and witches hair, respectively.

To harvest big trees more easily, however, the government had to build roads across Prince of Wales. In the mid-1960s it constructed one about 200 yards away from the old spruce, paving it with shot rock from a quarry.

For companies seeking to supply the growing market for paper and for rayon, made from cellulose, these large trees were ideal.

And Alaska Native corporations, the companies established in 1971 after receiving a small portion of their original homelands, also chopped down old growth. Within three decades, just a fraction still stood.

By 1975, timber had become a major economic force in Alaska, after oil and seafood. In search of high-paying jobs, men from all over the country began to arrive in a seasonal migration of loggers that would bring Americans from Oregon and Maine to the great state. The industry continued to boom through 1980, with logging and sawmill jobs averaging roughly 1,100 in the winter and 2,300 in the summer. International wood exports in fiscal 1981 totaled nearly $270 million, and shipments to the East Coast netted tens of millions more.

A land for loggers

Michael Kampnich, who grew up in dairy country in Upstate New York, found work as a feller in 1980 on Prince of Wales.

I was 21, and single and this sounded like a terrific adventure, recalled Kampnich, 62. I just fell in love with the place. I loved working in the woods. I still look back on those days fondly. It was kind of an exciting time.

Kampnich and other loggers, who were earning between $180 and $200 a day, felled trees in units. While many measured about two to two-and-half feet in diameter, some were much more massive. Risks were everywhere, from the dead or broken branches that could fall from the canopy dubbed widow makers to rotting trees that could collapse without warning.

Youve got a few of these dominant spruce that were, eight, nine feet. I cut a few like that. You know, it was a thrill to cut timber, especially big trees. Its challenging. Its very hard work. Theres a fairly high degree of danger to it.

The island took center stage in the states timber industry. Companies set up enormous floating logging camps on Thorne Bay, complete with bunkhouses for loggers and a cookhouse for meals. The year Kampnich arrived, production was at its peak in the Tongass, at more than half-a-billion board feet enough to fill at least 100,000 log trucks.

Other trees were bigger and more accessible than the Sitka spruce that had survived for more than four centuries. Its roots, by this time, had spread out at least 20 feet in every direction perhaps much more. The trees circumference measured 15.7 feet.

Scenes from the Tongass National Forest in July: Downtown Juneau, Alaska’s capital; the shoreline of Prince of Wales Island; and visitors to Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau.

Kampnich stopped logging in 1986. The primary thing for me was danger. You know, I had a couple of close calls, where I literally thought I was going to be killed thats part of the job. I had a number of friends who were seriously injured, I had a few that were killed. And once I started a family, I wanted something different.

But others kept coming, especially as logging became more difficult in the Pacific Northwest. Keith Landers had worked in Oregon for two decades, taking the leftover timber for shingles, but the old growth was running out.

It has to be old timber, he explained. I mean, we can cut second growth, but the people on the other end are not going to like it. Its just not going to last.

Broader economic forces started to reshape logging in Alaska. Federal regulations, such as the Clean Water Act, had made it more expensive for pulp mills to operate. Nylon and polyester were replacing rayon in the global marketplace. Sawmills in Haines, Seward and Klawock closed in 1991, and the big pulp mills soon followed.

Landers was undeterred. He heard about a small mill for sale near Thorne Bay, and in 1994 decided it was time to move.

Public officials made it clear that they wanted loggers like Landers to reap the islands bounty. A few years after his arrival, they paved the road running past the massive spruce to make it even easier to transport the giant logs.

Not long after Landers bought his mill, President Bill Clintons deputies took a hard look at road-building in federal forests. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck halted construction because Congress slashed the budget, but he decided he wanted a permanent halt to new roads. A lecture from his boss when he was a young field biologist in Michigans Hiawatha National Forest in the 70s echoed in his head: The most significant thing we do on the forest to change the land is to build a road.

Still, Clinton was worried about including Alaska in a proposed road ban; there was already pushback from Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Dombeck briefed Clinton as they flew aboard Marine One to survey fire damage in Idaho. The president had a single question: How many jobs would banning roads cost in Alaska? The answer: 383.

Well, I dont know what Ted Stevens is worried about, the president remarked.

The roadless rule was published on Jan. 12, 2001, right before Clinton left office. It set off a bitter battle, pitting conservationists, many Alaska Natives and Democrats on one side against timber companies, the Alaska political establishment and Republicans on the other.

Barack Obamas administration tried to forge a compromise, to shift over time to logging young-growth trees that were half-a-century old. But once Donald Trump was elected, it was clear the plan would be scrapped.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) cheered. Thankfully, the Obama administration has only weeks left in office, after which we can turn this decision around and bring active management to our federal forests for the benefit for Alaska and Americas economy.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stood at 405 parts per million. And the spruce on Prince of Wales faced the prospect of the ax once more.

Reclaiming the forest

Marina Andersons father made his living off logging. The familys native corporation, Shaan Seet, clear-cut much of the old growth on its land before she was born, and her dad helped build many of the roads crisscrossing Prince of Wales.

By the time Jimmy Anderson died in 2014, attitudes about logging had begun to change. Marina emerged as the one who would uphold her familys Haida and Tlingit traditions, reviving a way of life.

Along with her brother Cole, Anderson, 28, catches salmon from the Tongasss rivers and harvests berries and other plants from the forest. On a hot day in late June it reached 80 degrees, a nagging reminder of how climate change had already shifted conditions in this temperate rainforest she headed to the shores of Port Saint Nicholas Bay to teach a group of Native teenagers how to spot plants ripe for picking.

Its so hot, she groused, twisting her long auburn hair into a bun and placing a broad-brimmed cedar hat atop her head.

Marina Anderson, a member of the Haida and Tlingit nations, teaches members of the Alaska Youth Stewards about foraging traditions like harvesting rice from the roots of chocolate lilies.

Wearing clamdiggers and a black tank top, Anderson easily navigated her way through a thicket of old-growth forest. She dodged devils club coveted for food and medicinal purposes, whose stem is loaded with prickly spikes that can embed in the skin and clambered over mossy logs.

Making it out to the beach, she guided the teenagers to some chocolate lilies their bright-green pistils and mustard-yellow stamens peeking out from the rich brown petals and urged the kids to take a whiff. One of them, Joel Alejandro, inhaled before staggering back.

Kinda stinky, right? she asked, smiling before ripping it out of the earth to show them the small grains sticking to the roots. You see that? Its all rice. We all know how much of a bummer it is if youve got fish and no rice.

Walking through the forest, Anderson stopped to marvel at the power of old growth, the ancient trees above her, the rich and spongy ground beneath her feet.

The notion of cutting them down for high-end houses infuriates her.

We have to stop, she said. There is not enough left for everybody, and were not going to let any go.

Her generation is intent on mastering the native skills driven underground decades earlier, knowledge that draws on the resources of the forest, rivers and sea to withstand the disorienting present. The past, almost invisible now, provides a path forward.

Her friend and colleague, wood carver Michael Chilton, hovered so closely to watch as his father carved wood that it amounted to an implicit ultimatum: It was either teach me, or Ill get myself cut.

Chilton, now 30, began carving at the age of nine. His dad, now 56, had done the same, pestering his uncles as a kid in Juneau to teach him even the basics of the craft.

Anderson, who became Kasaans tribal administrator at the start of the pandemic, joined other Alaska Native leaders fighting to preserve the roadless rule even as the Trump administration sought to get rid of it. They filed administrative petitions, arguing that old-growth forests were critical to the forests survival and their way of life.

A tattoo on her rib cage captures one of her fathers favorite sayings: Being Haida is not about the things that you do. Being Haida is about the way you do things.

In January, Sealaska made a pivotal decision. The regional tribal corporation that had cut much of the old growth on its land officially stopped logging. Instead, under Californias emissions trading system, Sealaska sold carbon credits for its trees to the oil and gas company BP, making $100 million. It has offered $10 million of those proceeds to help raise money to invest in new businesses and generate jobs for local Alaska Natives.

A broad coalition, including outdoor recreation and environmental groups, argues that a different kind of forest-based economy has already emerged. Tourism accounted for 18 percent of southeast Alaskas jobs in 2019, according to the business group Southeast Conference, while the seafood industry generated 8 percent. Timber, by contrast, accounted for just 337 jobs, or 0.7 percent and that was before Sealaska stopped logging.

The pandemic hammered the regions leisure and hospitality industry last year: As the cruise industry skidded to a halt, the sectors employment dipped by 45 percent. But small-scale tourism boomed this year, as Americans headed outdoors once coronavirus vaccines became widely available.

Wildlife and nature are a major driver of the economy in the Tongass, from tourism at the Mendenhall Glacier to whale watching off Juneau and fish processing in the city, as Martin Shelton unloads Taku River salmon for Yakobi Fisheries.

Sitting outside at a beer garden in downtown Juneau, Dan Kirkwood, general manager of Alaska Seaplanes Adventures, gestured toward the crowd. These people are all here because they want to see glaciers, whales, bears and Alaska Native culture, he said.

For $850 a person, Kirkwoods company takes guests to a pristine spot on the archipelagos Admiralty Island, where they gaze from a distance at brown bears as they grab salmon, graze on vegetation and amble about. Only 24 people are allowed to touch down by float plane at Pack Creek each day, minimizing the tourists impact.

This is the sort of small-scale employment that Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, sees as sustaining the shift away from logging.

Rather than depending on a single commodity such as timber, she argued, the region can draw on diverse businesses that are interconnected. Juneaus Amalga Distillery ages its whiskey in big barrels that are rolled down the street so that Barnaby and Devils Club Brewing can barrel-age its beer. Juneau Composts picks up the distillerys spent grain, along with its napkins, paper towels and garnishes, and sells it back to the community as fertilizer. Strictly Local Gallery in the town of Craig on Prince of Wales is buying handiwork from artists across the region.

The answer is that its many things that get stitched together, Trainor said. And that makes us safer.

Kampnich, who once reveled in felling massive trees here, used to dismiss environmentalists objections that clearing the forest would have unintended consequences. He wrote a piece in the 1990s in the Juneau Empire saying just that. But 15 years ago, Kampnich who is still wiry and fit but now has white, bushy eyebrows spilling over his clear blue eyes noticed how trees coming up at the exact same time created a biological desert that harms deer, salmon and other wildlife.

Some of what they were saying, I saw it happening, he said. The conservationists were right.

Kampnich knows that on Prince of Wales, many people are wary of stopping logging altogether. But he thinks there is room for small operators like Landers to stay in business.

Landers whose beaten flannel shirt and jeans are covered in wood dust takes pride in the wood he cuts. His mills yellow cedar graces the ceiling above passengers heads as they traverse N gates at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an undulating emblem of the rainforest. One of his hands bears the scars of working with heavy equipment, and he describes his economic aspirations in blunt terms. All I want to do is make enough money until Im dead.

When it comes to Trainor and her allies, Landers has little patience. You want to stop logging in the Tongass, tell your friends to quit buying our product. Because they love red cedar. Were in love with their money, period. And thats the truth about the matter.

His anger is palpable as he walks through his small mill, past a $100,000 saw he bought recently. Landers has little respect for politicians who have instituted policies from thousands of miles away. You know, we need a plan. And thats what we dont have in the Tongass. We change our underwear every four years.

You want to hold on to that carbon

Bryce Dahlstrom is an owner of Viking Lumber, a family-owned firm that started up as the pulp mills were shutting down in the 1990s. In November 2019, he stood before the city council in Craig, the islands biggest town, urging its members to reconsider the idea of moving away from old-growth logging.

Council members had gathered to discuss a letter they planned to send to the Trump administration endorsing the idea of eventually transitioning to cutting young growth. As the owner of the last major sawmill in southeast Alaska, with about 40 employees, Dahlstrom commanded the members attention.

Viking is a big supporter of the city of Craig, he reminded them. We provide them with heat for their middle school, and elementary and swimming pool. The reason we can do that is because weve got a high-value log.

You dont force business into doing something different because its socially unacceptable, Dahlstrom argued.

Viking Lumber Co. is the only major sawmill operating on Prince of Wales, near the town of Klawock. It focuses on harvesting old-growth trees.

Dahlstrom had an ally in Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was born in nearby Ketchikan. In 2017, she wrote legislation to authorize the exchange of thousands of acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the Tongass with land held by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, an independent state agency. The Tongass property held more old-growth forests, so after the swap the state agency was able to auction off 4,000 acres of forest. Viking won the bid, paying close to $5 million so far to log the old-growth trees there.

The clear cuts on land that once belonged to U.S. taxpayers on Prince of Wales, near the town of Naukati, are visible from the road. They amount to desiccated tree graveyards, littered with slashed branches and stumps whose rings attest to their advanced age.

Transferring federal land to state control represents the industrys best shot at cutting down more old growth, the Alaska Forest Association associate board member Eric Cole posted in May to a private Facebook group. But, he wrote on the Alaskan Loggers page, the odds of that happening are very slim.

In September 2020, after losing a timber sale challenge brought by the law firm Earthjustice, the Trump administration proposed harvesting old-growth trees in what it dubbed the Twin Mountain II sale. The lofty Sitka spruce off Highway 43 stood within the sales boundaries. The blue slash was spray-painted on its 500-year-old trunk.

But when Joe Biden won the presidency in November, it was clear the roadless rule would be back. And Forest Service officials on the ground, for their part, are exploring what the agency can do to support the economy beyond holding timber sales.

Delilah Brigham, the deputy district ranger for Thorne Bay, said that many people dont realize the agency is upgrading the spartan recreation area surrounding El Capitan Cave. The work will make it easier for tourists to visit the karst formation and archaeological trove.

They just see the timber, she said. They dont see all the other projects.

Maybe, instead of taking the trees, the Tongass could be a climate sanctuary whose carbon stores would buy Americans time as the nation transitions away from fossil fuels, suggested scientists such as Beverly Law and the Earth Island Institutes Dominick DellaSala.

Biologists John Schoen and Dave Albert estimate that about half of the Tongasss biggest old-growth stands have been clear-cut since the start of industrial forestry in the 1950s. Roughly 5 million acres of commercial-quality old-growth habitat remains, only about 537,000 acres of which are large trees.

Scenes of logging operations in the Tongass National Forest, in July. Debris remains after clear-cutting on Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority land, while a truck carries timber from old-growth trees on a road through the forest.

Walking around the ancient spruce this summer, DellaSala heard the songs of the birds he began studying three decades ago: the single, melodious note of the varied thrush, the high, three-part tweet of a Pacific-slope flycatcher and the rapid-fire, descending chatter of a Wilsons warbler. These creatures need this forest, he argued, but so does the climate. Younger trees take up carbon faster, but theyre not storing as much as old trees.

In a climate emergency, you want to hold onto that carbon, you dont want to put it into the atmosphere, DellaSala said. You want to absorb it, but you want to hold onto it as well.

In mid-July, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called all three members of the Alaska delegation as he worked remotely in Iowa. He told them all that not only was he reversing Trumps policy but also was ending all old-growth harvesting except by Alaska Natives and small local operators such as Landers.

Anderson heard the news that same day, in a conference call between the Forest Services Regional Forester David Schmid and tribal officials. She was walking between her kitchen and her smokehouse, where she had been curing king and dog salmon. She listened as Schmid explained that the tribes would get cultural priority in selecting the red cedars to use in their most monumental works.

The enormity of the moment stunned her. Alaskas ancient trees would be spared. And she rejoiced.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stood at 412.5 parts per million and rising.

Several miles away, the battered crown of the spruce towered over the landscape. The blue death mark remained, but under the new policy, the timber sale that signaled its demise was canceled.

The venerable tree was safe. For now.

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About this story

Several researchers provided input on the Tongass National Forests ecosystem, including the U.S. Forest Services James Baichtal, Robert Mike Sheets and Sheila Jacobson; former Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientist John Schoen; the Earth Island Institutes Dominck DellaSala; University of Oregon Professor Emeritus Beverly Law; naturalist Richard Carstensen; author James Mackovjak and consultant Catherine Mater.

Editing by Trish Wilson. Photography and video by Salwan Georges. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Garland Potts. Design editing by Matthew Callahan. Map by Lauren Tierney. Map data sourced from the National Audubon Society. Graphics editing by Chiqui Esteban. Copy editing by Anastasia Marks and Vince Rinehart. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

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