SITKA, Alaska - It opened at the end of the Eisenhower administration, and for 3 1/2 decades the sprawling wood-processing plant on Silver Bay a few miles outside Sitka devoured vast quantities of spruce, hemlock and cedar from the temperate rain forest of Southeast Alaska.
Today, the Alaska Pulp Corp.'s dilapidated plant is silent. Its gates padlocked and employees scattered, the factory symbolizes an uncertain transition under way on the nation's largest national forest, an area larger than West Virginia that contains almost one-third of the world's remaining temperate rain forest. Conservation groups are pressing the Clinton administration to take early steps to protect wildlife and prevent another forest crisis like that in the Pacific Northwest.
For decades, the federal government's management of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest was driven largely by one imperative: to provide billions of board feet of heavily subsidized timber to two companies that dominated Southeast Alaska's economy: Japanese-owned Alaska Pulp Corp. and Ketchikan Pulp Co., a subsidiary of lumber giant Louisiana Pacific. The goal was to create a stable year-round economic foundation in a remote region that was dependent on seasonal industries such as fishing.
Now there are mounting concerns about the ecological cost of maintaining the rate of clear-cutting of old-growth trees on the 1.7 million Tongass acres open to commercial logging. So the U.S. Forest
Service and the Clinton administration are cautiously exploring a different direction.
Earlier this year, the Forest Service canceled the 50-year contract that had guaranteed Alaska Pulp five billion board feet of timber. The administration argued that Alaska Pulp violated the pact by indefinitely shutting down as it studied a possible conversion of the plant from pulp to a more-competitive product: medium-density fiberboard.
In addition, the Forest Service has sent to Juneau a new regional forester whose background is in wildlife and fish conservation rather than timber management. And, after earlier suppressing the study, the Forest Service is taking a serious look at a scientific panel's recommendations to create a network of wildlife conservation reserves that would dramatically reduce logging.
TEST CASE FOR CLINTON
To conservationists, the Tongass represents a test case of the Clinton administration's commitment to protecting entire ecosystems and intervening before endangered-species conflicts become acute.
"Things have to change," said Eric Jorgensen, a Juneau-based lawyer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. "The future of Alaska includes a timber industry, but at a much smaller level that is sustainable over time. . . ."
To the timber industry and its supporters, the Tongass offers a test of another kind: whether the Clinton administration will cave in to its environmental allies and "lock up" a resource.
"This forest can go on forever," argues Ketchikan Pulp Co. president Ralph Lewis.
Both sides would agree that the Tongass is a unique treasure. "An endless rhythm and beauty," in the words of naturalist John Muir.
Stretching more than 500 miles along Alaska's panhandle and across hundreds of islands, the Tongass is three times larger than the nation's second-biggest national forest. It is a land of almost-ineffable beauty and great ecological and geological diversity: 800-year-old Sitka spruce trees, massive glaciers, towering mountains, biologically rich bogs and wetlands, brown bears, wolves, eagles and prodigious salmon runs.
The Tongass also has few equals when it comes to political and environmental controversy. Concerned about the cost of subsidizing Tongass sales and the extent of timber cutting, Congress five years ago passed the Tongass Timber Reform Act. It established new wilderness areas and called for stream protections. But critics say the Forest Service under the Bush administration evaded the law's conservation provisions.
To some scientists who have long studied the Tongass and its wildlife, logging on a massive scale fundamentally alters the delicate connections between plants and animals in ways that do not heal for hundreds of years.
Southeast Alaska has abundant, year-round precipitation, and trees regenerate quickly there.
But Paul B. Alaback, a University of Montana forest ecologist who spent years studying the Tongass for the Forest Service, said the forest that quickly grows back in large clear-cuts is fundamentally different from what arises when natural regeneration takes place.
Large-scale natural disturbances such as forest fires are rare in the wet climate of the Tongass. More typical is the loss of a few trees to high winds. Young trees quickly fill those spaces, producing an unevenly aged forest with ample sunlight nourishing a rich understory of shrubs and bushes that feed deer and other wildlife.
In large clear-cuts, an even-aged stand of young trees quickly grows, and for the first 20 years or so this young forest provides good habitat for wildlife. But Alaback said that after about 30 years, the stand is so densely packed with young trees that almost no sunlight gets through to the forest floor. The understory is almost barren except for ferns and mosses, and that condition persists for 200 years or more.
"We're changing the natural disturbance regime, with extremely long-term consequences," Alaback said. "I don't think it's possible to log for pulp and retain the ecological values."
BEST TIMBER IN VALLEYS
"The best timber is in the valleys," said Gary A. Morrison, the forest supervisor who oversees about half of the Tongass land area. "That's where the loggers want to be, that's where the wildlife is, that's where the streams are. We just can't provide everything for everybody any more. . . ."
Even though only about 7 percent of the productive old-growth trees have been cut on the Tongass (about 308,000 acres), scientists argue that the concentration of logging in key wildlife areas has magnified the impact. In addition, many thousands of acres of Native corporation lands have been extensively clear-cut in recent years, with fewer protections for wildlife.
One of those places is Prince of Wales Island, where the patchwork of Native corporation and Forest Service clear-cuts often stretches as far as the eye can see and where conservation groups are fighting two new timber sales that would total about 450 million board feet.
"We're just marching through the old growth like they did in the Northwest," said Mike McKimens, the public-works director for the town of Craig on the island.
The pulp companies' dominance, they said, has prevented the development of so-called value-added industries that would use less wood, fashion it into consumer products and provide needed employment.
"I think it would be wonderful if several cottage industries sprung up, but it's not going to have the impact those of us in business are looking for," said Roger Hames, who owns two grocery stores in Sitka.
Along with other members of the Sitka business community, Hames is bracing for the full impact of the shutdown of Alaska Pulp, which contributed an $18 million payroll to the small city's economy, and about one-sixth of the local tax base. Ketchikan Pulp Co. officials argue that much of the Tongass' timber is of poor quality only good for pulp.