Alaska's Rewritten Rainforest: How It Looks Back East

WASHINGTON - Alaska's Tongass National Forest has been much in the news. If you've never been in a temperate-zone rainforest, biologists tell us, you can't imagine how lush it is, and how much denser with life even than tropical rain forests.

The Smithsonian has undertaken to show the Tongass through a photo exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History (through Sept. 10). There are a lot of very pretty pictures, but most of them amount to travel posters, scenic views that do little to help us appreciate the rich and diverse biomass that Tongass defenders cite in their campaign to have most of the remaining old-growth forest put off-limits to loggers.

The exhibit text is similarly distant and generalized. We're not told how much of the 17-million-acre forest has been logged or is liable to logging, nor are we given any details of the effects of such operations.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), which organized the exhibit, obviously went to great lengths to avoid anything controversial.

"It is not a show about cultures, environmental issues, tourism or the government," said Smithsonian press chief Linda St. Thomas. "We made no commitments, no promises."

But bland though the exhibit was, it still had too much bite to suit Alaska's two senators, and so what we see now is not even what we originally got: The text has been partly rewritten at the behest of staff members of Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank H. Murkowski.

Before-and-after visitors are unlikely to notice the difference; it's hard to gut something that was nearly lifeless to begin with. Seven of the labels accompanying the 42 photographs have been rewritten.

The main changes, according to one Smithsonian staffer, were the deletion of the word "powerful" from an already mild reference to the impact of clear-cutting, and the addition of text noting that Congress has declared parts of the Tongass untouchable. He said the Senate aides also tried to get the term "clear-cutting" changed to "patch-cutting," but were turned down.

"The tone was what bothered them," said curator Robert Glenn Ketchum. "They thought my tone was wrong, but it was redrafted."

Stevens' press spokesman Mitch F. Rose chuckled at any suggestion of bullying. "We heard about the show and asked them about it," he said. "They sent us a copy of the text and we sent back some suggestions. I don't think they used many of them. That was it."

The Smithsonian refused to make the original text available for comparison with the revised version. At first a SITES spokeswoman said the original text "no longer exists." Later she conceded that the original text is on file but that "it's not our practice to release various versions of exhibit texts."

Both senators' offices said they didn't keep copies of the texts, and therefore can't recall the exact wording of the changes.

The pretty pictures remain.