Tree Cutting by the Numbers ; Environmentalists Try Fighting Alaska Logging for Economic Reasons

By Todd Wilkinson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 2004 | Go to article overview

Tree Cutting by the Numbers ; Environmentalists Try Fighting Alaska Logging for Economic Reasons


Todd Wilkinson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Past the whitecaps of Icy Strait, concealed behind a mountain ridge, Floyd Peterson drives his all-terrain vehicle along a remote logging road in America's largest national forest.

He suddenly stops and shakes his head. Beside the road is a swath of ancient spruce and hemlock recently felled by a logging company and then left to rot. "Look at this waste," says Mr. Peterson, a commercial fisherman from nearby Hoonah and the son of a Tlingit Indian. "It makes you sick ... to know the Forest Service is promoting more logging while it allows this to happen."

The 400,000 board feet of logs - enough wood to build 25 homes - was abandoned by Whitestone Southeast Logging Inc. because it wasn't considered commercially profitable to haul out. The economics didn't work, even though the Forest Service spent $2 million preparing the timber sale, offering centuries-old trees to Whitestone for only $4 each and paying the Alaska company to bulldoze a logging road to give access to the forest.

The tale of the "Humpback-Gallagher" timber sale and its aftermath along a rutted road here is adding a new dimension to one of the oldest - and most volatile - forest debates in the United States.

For years, environmentalists have fought logging in the Tongass National Forest largely for ecological reasons. At 17 million acres, it is not only the largest but one of the most diverse rain forests in the country. Yet now activists are increasingly fighting logging in the coniferous expanse on the grounds that it isn't economical - an argument that is already appealing to some free-market Republicans - setting up a new collision with the Bush administration over forest policies.

Environmentalists argue that it isn't worth it for taxpayers to subsidize the timber prices and pay for building logging roads when the companies can't afford to sell the wood anyway. "The bottom line is the bottom line," says Tim Bristol, a strategist with the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group. "Building new roads and logging untouched portions of the Tongass doesn't add up or make sense."

This new twist to the decades-old Tongass debate was evident on Capitol Hill this week. Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio attached an amendment to an Interior Department appropriations bill that would forbid the Forest Service from spending tax dollars subsidizing the construction of logging roads in the Tongass.

Mr. Chabot's amendment set off a contentious floor debate. Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, a longtime logging supporter, called it "ill thought out, ill conceived, and wrong, totally." Yet with 47 Republicans joining Chabot and breaking ranks with the powerful Mr. Young, the measure passed 220 to 205, threatening the Bush administration's plans to expand subsidized logging.

Anatomy of a forest

Often referred to as the "forest of islands," the Tongass stretches for 500 miles along the Pacific coast, encompassing everything from volcanic uplands to glacial fiords. …

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