The road to conservation requires no new roads

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:27 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tongass National Forest has become almost mythical to me. Years ago, I read an inspiring piece of journalism exploring the disastrous effects of the logging industry on the Alaskan forest and fell in love with the place. The landscape the author painted with vivid details and luscious adjectives dazzled me, and I promised myself I would visit one day.

Tongass is a gem. The 16.8 million-acre, old-growth, temperate rainforest is home to more natural splendors than I have inches to do justice. The largest of all our national forests, Tongass encompasses the majority of the Alaskan panhandle and is staggering in its diversity of flora and fauna. But Tongass’ treasures have also been the bane of its existence. Money might not grow on trees, but it flourishes in the land's rich and fertile soil.  

Last week the latest act in what is starting to seem like the tragedy of Tongass played out. The Juneau Empire reported that the U.S. Forest Service was given the OK to allow Pacific Log and Lumber, an Alaskan timber mill in the panhandle, to clear-cut a 381-acre swath in the national forest. Although the base contract for 4.4 million board feet is relatively small and logging in Tongass is prevalent, the decision was made at a time when a real stand could have been made for conservation and Tongass.  

A bit of history: In 2001, the Clinton administration created the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect more than 58 million acres of undeveloped land in our national forests. Almost 10 million of these acres were in Tongass. Known as the “no new roads rule,” and derided by those in the timber industry, the Bush administration amended the rule so that states could have autonomy over their roadless policies (wink, wink). These changes were overturned in 2006, but that was too late for Tongass. As the result of a court charge Alaska brought against the government in 2003 claiming the logging industry was vital to the economy of the area, Tongass became the only national forest completely exempt from the rule.

Present day: The Obama administration is currently reviewing the original Roadless Area Conservation Rule and will address the issue sometime next year. Until then, all contracts concerning areas that were originally inventoried as protected under the rule must be personally reviewed and approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Reportedly, Vilsack based his decision to green light the project on the need to jump start the local economy.  

This is simply unacceptable. Economics are just too broad of a reason to go ahead with such long-term damage. This is not job creation so much as it is laziness to come up with responsible solutions. There is but a fraction of the original old-growth trees left in Tongass, and they must be preserved. As Douglas H. Chadwick pointed out in a stellar feature on Tongass for National Geographic, “by the measure of a human life span, conifers hundreds of years high and wide are not really renewable resources, and extracting them is more akin to mining.”

Furthermore, roads are unbelievably damaging. They cause erosion that eventually choke streams and creeks vital to the ecosystem. In Tongass, where the salmon runs are epic and play as vital of a role to the ecosystem as logging does for the economy, new roads could be disastrous. Also, roads and human presence inevitably result in pollution and are just generally intrusive and harmful to an environment and its inhabitants.       

I understand that the desk I use as my workspace and the chair that I am sitting on are products of this industry, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Although this was just one decision,  I expect and demand more from our leaders. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule needs to be fully reinstituted and regulated with a heavy hand. Future generations should not be bereft of such beauty and natural wonders because we failed to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible.        

I still plan on making it to Tongass one day, and I can’t wait to crane my neck skywards and exalt under the soaring canopy of the cathedral forests, but I am also prepared for the worst – an unfortunate generational byproduct. I understand there are many costs to preservation, but if you have ever spent any real time in nature, you understand that the cost is a mere pittance of what we gain in return.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: "The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy." 

Right now, I couldn’t agree more.    


 Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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John Schultz July 22, 2009 | 12:34 a.m.

Another case where people expect the government to protect something of value when private ownership by individuals, conservation organizations, and so forth would result in much better outcomes.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr July 22, 2009 | 5:03 a.m.

Ya know I am all for the total preservation of our natural forests as where I grew up in Northern California I have seen first hand the effects of mismanaged logging operations. I have also seen the good side of the replanting operations too and in fact was a part of many when I was a employee for the State of California in my younger years.

Alot of the problem is corrupt government officials turning a blind eye and the citizens of this nation not voting into office real officials who will properly manage our national forests. Also the hiring of bad employees into the Forest Management systems hurts us all.

The real answer to this is citizens standing up and speaking as one voice through numerous petitions to our Government Officials.

This site here provides a outlet for all citizens to have their voices heard via the petition process.

There are alot of great causes to help with on that site.

(Report Comment)
Marcus Chin July 25, 2009 | 9:57 p.m.

I am absolutely alarmed at the absurdity of this article and the comments posted here. First of all, Andrew, I find it difficult to put any stock in your article because of your obvious ignorance regarding natural resource management and the Tongass National Forest. Your entire article is based upon something you read one time about logging. As a journalist, I would expect that you would be aware that there are always two sides to every issue and that, frequently, what you read will be biased toward one position. The Tongass is not a "16.8 million acre old-growth forest". It does contain what is referred to as "old-growth", but the "old-growth" is a surprisingly small percentage of the forest itself. It may surprise you to learn that much of the management on the Tongass is now focused on managing "young-growth". (Notice I'm saying "The Tongass" as national forests are referred to using "the" as a prefix to the name of the forest, whereas national parks are referred to simply by the name of the national park. Believe it or not, there IS a difference between national forests and national parks.) You mention preservation in your article. Apparently you have not read the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act which governs how our national forests are managed. It would do all readers good to know how our national forests are supposed to be managed, especially those readers who are sharing their opinions with others. In closing, I would just like to address Charles Dudley Jr.'s comments regarding the problems being with the corrupt government officials and bad employees. I think your comments reflect an incredible amount of ignorance. You would be absolutely blown away at the ingenuity of the PROFESSIONAL resource managers that manage our nation's forests for YOU.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr July 26, 2009 | 5:05 a.m.

Marcus Chin that is your opinion you are entitled too just I am entitled to mine. The difference is I have seen poor forest management up close where I used to live in Northern California and it still goes on today.

(Report Comment)

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