Old-Growth Logging’s Last Stand?
On a drizzly September morning on Prince of Wales Island, off the coast of southeastern Alaska, Josh Kohn walked through a small forest’s worth of unevenly piled logs. Stacks of fragrant red cedar (Thuja plicata) surrounded a rust-edged log shovel, its claw-arm slumped in rest. Past the cedar, Kohn crossed the bark-scattered track to a jumble of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and western hemlock logs (Tsuga heterophylla) along the woodlot’s edge. “This stuff has been nice. I like cutting it,” he said, resting a thick hand on a 15-inch-diameter spruce log. It’s straight and strong, he explained, saws fast, comes out with character.
The spruce and hemlock logs differed in a key way from the cedar ones behind him—and that difference may reshape the future of both the timber industry and the vast forests that still line this part of the world. “This tree here is 65 years old,” Kohn said, touching another spruce. “And that one there is maybe 35 to 40.” The cedars? Tapered like giant carrots, they’re likely more than 200 years old, their tightly packed rings cradling the memory of decades when the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian were the primary people living in this place and harvesting its trees.
If you’ve paid attention to the conservation battles fought in the Lower 48 over the past couple of decades, you might have thought nobody in the United States was still cutting down old-growth forests—at least not on public lands. But like all of Southeast Alaska’s sawmills, the small one where Kohn works, called Good Faith Lumber—tucked amid a scrappy handful of mom-and-pop shops on a dirt-road spur—survives on a diet of ancient trees from the 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest. It’s the last national forest in the country with an industrial old-growth clearcutting program.
Old-growth trees are more likely to have high-priced buttery-smooth, knot-free grain, called “clear,” that’s in demand for interiors; their wood is also prized for musical instruments and carving. Exclusive access to ancient trees keeps mills alive in this remote area, which is dominated by the Alexander Archipelago, more than 1,000 islands jutting down from Alaska like a fractured thumb along the Inside Passage. Here, logs and lumber must be transported long distances by barge, which helps push business costs far past those in the Lower 48.
Staying afloat financially is not getting easier. Market forces, past overcutting, environmental battles, policy changes and other factors have coalesced to make the Tongass timber model nearly impossible to sustain. So starting in 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and top U.S. Forest Service officials pushed what seemed like a sensible solution: transition the timber industry toward harvesting younger trees, like those piled in Good Faith’s lot and growing back on more than 450,000 clearcut acres. In theory, that would help timber businesses maintain local jobs and avoid lawsuits, while better supporting tourism and fishing, and protecting what remains of the secretive vegetated chambers, fat trunks, and multilayered canopies of one of the world’s few massive, and still largely intact, old-growth temperate rainforests.
Kohn and Catherine Mater, a wood-products engineer from Oregon, stepped under an open-air structure that shields fresh cut lumber from the elements, and took a seat on stacked boards to chat with mill owners Greg Boyd and Hans Kohn, Josh’s father. Since buying Good Faith in 2012, Boyd has been one of the few mill operators interested in experimenting with younger trees. Good Faith bought part of one of the Forest Service’s first sales of exclusively younger trees last year, and the mill hopes to work with Mater on a study to assess the economics of harvesting them—and the products they might produce.
“For me, the jury is completely out on young growth,” Boyd explained. The mill and loggers would both need new equipment to process the smaller trees efficiently. Still, Boyd wanted to know his options. “There’s knowledge we’ll be gaining here,” he said. “Are we going to be reactive when the time comes? Or proactive now and start easing into it so we can have a jump on the marketplace—and experience, which is the greatest teacher there is—when we don’t have any choice?”
The timber sale and Mater’s study, though, have been plagued with hiccups, as has much of the Forest Service’s promised transition from old-growth logging. Lingering questions about young growth’s readiness and viability, Forest Service budget issues, the squabbles of entrenched political interests, and inertia have all dragged the effort out. This month, six years down what looked from the outside like a path to detente in Alaska’s bitter logging war, the Tongass National Forest has only just finalized a formal plan to mostly phase out old-growth logging. But even that plan allows 16 more years of heavy old-growth clearcutting, and it’s unclear whether it can—or will, under a Donald Trump presidency—ultimately be enforced.
How much of the Tongass’s last large swaths of truly big old-growth trees will be cut in the meantime? “That is one thing that’s irreplaceable,” said forest ecologist Brian Buma of the University of Alaska, Southeast. “One thing you just can’t manipulate into existence is big trees.”
If you fly into Prince of Wales on a rare clear day, the island and its neighbors will appear to be floating in sky instead of sea. The giveaway is an occasional boat, or sea lion, or tails of kelp slicing reflected clouds. Clearcuts scrape across the island’s mountains: brown where fresh, uniformly green where grown over with new shrubs and trees. In between, untouched ancient forest looks ragged, stitched by silvered dead trees, flocked with lichens.
The ocean presses inland through this vegetative riot via a seasonal heartbeat of salmon runs, pumping through a vasculature of streams. I was late to the flood of fish, so only a few still hopped in the tannin-stained waters, and white-edged corpses scattered the banks. You could smell creeks before you saw them, even from inside a car, and passengers strained to see which creatures might appear at the water’s edge.
Bears, eagles, and other animals all disperse salmon across the forest floor, first as carcasses, then as scat. So it is that Tongass salmon become trees, their delta of nutrients fanning outward and upward in elevation, fertilizing soil and traveling into the canopy as Sitka spruce, cedar, and hemlock that in turn help sustain species like Queen Charlotte goshawks (Accipiter gentilis laingi), marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), and northern flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus).
But over the past century, this ocean wealth has sluiced back out of the forest along a separate vasculature of roads—as logs, feeding instead the growth of communities like Craig and Thorne Bay. It wasn’t necessarily the timber’s quality that made this possible—despite ancient trees’ desirable characteristics, they’re also much more likely to have defects like rot, and access to them was difficult. When Bernard Fernow, the father of North American forestry, observed these woods on an 1899 expedition, he famously concluded that the rugged terrain and distance from markets meant that “this reserve will, for an indefinite time, be left untouched except for local use.”
It took a U.S. government eager to promote settlement for national security reasons several tries and a surge in Japanese demand for post-war reconstruction to seed something large-scale here. The transformation began in the 1950s, with two 50-year contracts guaranteeing cheap, large, consistent supplies from the Tongass National Forest to two giant pulp mills. Those operations began pulverizing ancient trees for products like rayon and diapers. Then in the ‘70s, a new law incentivized forest liquidation on hundreds of thousands of acres of newly private tribal lands. And in the ‘80s, another law set astronomical timber subsidies and harvest levels on the Tongass National Forest, partly in trade for conservation elsewhere.
Times were fat, former logger Robert Rowland told me over a pint, recounting his stint on Long Island, just south of Prince of Wales, where some of the Tongass’s largest trees once stood. “It was like logging the redwoods. Like going into Jurassic Park. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur came running out.”
But the boom’s spoils didn’t last. In the 1990s, pollution crackdowns, environmental backlash, and global pulp market troubles shut down both pulp mills. At the same time, major legislative and policy reforms led to protections like designated old-growth reserves and no-cut buffers around waterways, which reined in the most destructive logging practices—some of which had so devastated certain watersheds with landslides and fish-choking sedimentation that one stream was nicknamed FUBAR, after the military slang acronym (f#@%ed up beyond all recognition).
Still, new loggers and millers filtered in, some of them seeking old-growth access they’d lost in the Northwest’s spotted owl wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Viking Lumber, the largest Southeast Alaska mill still in business, retooled a bankrupt sawmill on Prince of Wales, in the town of Klawock, and began buying timber sales in parts of the forest where cutting was still allowed. But if the newcomers didn’t realize it at first, it quickly became obvious that Alaska was changing, too. In 2001, for example, President Clinton’s Roadless Rule set aside nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped national forest around the country, including 9.5 million in the Tongass.
Tongass National Forest harvests dropped from an annual average of 220 million board feet during the pulp mills’ last gasps in the 1990s—equivalent to the lumber it would take to build 13,400 average American single-family homes—to about 33 million board feet annually over the past decade. Between 1998 and 2012, the region lost nearly 1,000 timber jobs—leveling off around 250, while the number of active mills has been cut in half, to just 10, devastating some communities. Meanwhile, other private-sector jobs, including tourism and commercial fishing, which today account for one in five positions, surged by 1,400.
It’s here that the Tongass tale diverges into two competing narratives. One, from industry, holds that old-growth forest is plentiful but has been locked up by activists and an inept federal government. Indeed, just 12 percent of productive ancient forest—the stuff that grows more quickly—has been logged across public, state and private land.
The second narrative, espoused by environmentalists, highlights the wildly variable quality of Tongass trees, and the fact that most of the best and biggest have already been cut—hammering the region’s most important wildlife habitat. When Josh Kohn first arrived on Prince of Wales from the Olympic Peninsula, he was surprised by the relatively small size of most local old growth: “I’ve seen limbs that size in the Washington rainforest,” he told me. Today, the landscape contains far fewer trees larger than three feet in diameter — let alone the rare Sitka spruce giants surpassing 10 feet across – than it once did. What remains of the richest forests is highly fragmented, with large, contiguous swaths of big-tree old growth reduced by 66 percent in the region, according to a 2013 analysis. On highly productive northern Prince of Wales Island, it’s starker, with 94 percent gone.
The impacts aren’t just local. Deforestation today accounts for about 12 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and the Tongass’s old forests store much more carbon than its young ones. By one widely cited estimate, its ancient trees, soils and bogs contain a whopping eight percent of all carbon stored in U.S. forests. As logging chewed through them during industry’s peak decades, the national forest’s net emissions—from slash, roots, and soil, and eventually from wood products themselves, which do a much poorer job sequestering carbon than live trees—quintupled.
For these and other reasons, environmental groups have fiercely defended the remaining public-land old growth. Timber sales take years to move; management plans levitate in legal limbo. Even past efforts at compromise have deadlocked and disintegrated, deepening some rifts even as new relationships between warring factions were born. With some of the same people squaring off for decades, the fights sometimes seem venomously personal—including among those with similar objectives. “I don’t think I’ve ever covered a more toxic issue,” one public-lands expert told me.
The Viking mill’s co-owner Kirk Dahlstrom is gruff about the situation: “Our company has spent close to $1 million on attorneys fighting environmental lawsuits. I hate it.” Asked why he keeps on, he growled, “We’re Swedes, we’re too stupid to give up.” Then, more soberly: “I’m fighting for the next generation.”
Mater began studying the Tongass young-growth conundrum in 2011, and ramped up after a 2013 USDA order setting a 10- to 15-year deadline for a transition out of old growth. The Geos Institute, a climate-adaptation nonprofit, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, had tasked her with figuring out how quickly the switch could move, and she did so by surveying how much young growth might be available from environmentally compromised areas along roads. Mater’s GIS and field surveys of scattered stands ultimately suggested the new trees were not only larger than expected, but that they could produce enough wood to shift local industry mostly out of old growth as soon as 2020—provided the Good Faith study and others yield promising results when, and if, they move forward. “At the end of the day, if we’re even half correct on what we think the volume is,” Mater told me, “it’s going to reinvent the industry.”
Geos, NRDC, and a coalition of other green groups hoped the Forest Service would take the survey results as a cue to move much more quickly away from old growth, a prospect for which there was considerable outside support, including a 2015 letter from seven scientific societies. “I am sensitive to the fact that these are rural communities where every job matters,” said Dominick DellaSala, president of Geos. “That’s why we said, ‘If you go this way, you get a wall of wood. If you go this way, you get a wall of litigation.’ We were trying to help.”
In the end, the Forest Service disregarded Mater’s data, noting among other things that it was inconsistent with its own labs’ previous findings, and that her five-year timeline was too short for the industry to adapt. The agency’s calculus is likely political, too. Mater’s association with hardline environmental groups made her surveys tricky to rely on, especially since several industry representatives dismissed them as wildly optimistic. And Dahlstrom and his son have warned publicly that Viking—which employs 38 people and dozens of contractors in a place where unemployment rates are high—is already near closure, arguing that the Forest Service already supplies the mill with barely enough old growth to operate. “When we are in a second-growth supply situation,” Dahlstrom told me flatly, “Viking will no longer be here.”
Southeast Alaska’s timber industry might be small, but it enjoys tremendous clout with the state, and with Alaska’s congressional delegation, which have both argued for a 20- to 30-year transition into young growth and a higher continued old-growth harvest. They’ve also put considerable pressure on the Forest Service. Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, leads a powerful committee that controls the purse strings on the agency’s national budget.
Vilsack’s 2013 order tried to stake out some middle ground, though: It called on the Forest Service to convene a collaborative group composed of representatives from tribes, the state, industry, environmental groups, and others. Many of that advisory committee’s consensus recommendations have been adopted in a new plan finalized this month. It sets a 16-year timeline that maintains an old-growth harvest roughly equivalent to the current total for the first decade, topped off with a smaller young-growth harvest, before ramping the former down and the latter up until, in the end, loggers have access each year to 41 million board feet of young growth and climbing, and only 5 million board feet of old growth. That would still cover many of the smaller mills and artisans—Good Faith, for example, processes about 800,000 board feet per year, although it has capacity for 5.5 million.
The plan also places important watersheds and ecological areas off limits to old-growth logging, and for the first time recognizes long-contested Roadless Rule protections. Still, it left out key committee recommendations that environmentalists felt would make the transition enforceable, including a five-year deadline for planning the big old-growth timber sales meant to tide the industry over until younger trees are ready. “I think without that, we’re feeling like any future administration can log old growth forever, and policy will be dictated by the whims of the mills,” said committee member Andrew Thoms of the Sitka Conservation Society.
In addition, the plan adopted a controversial provision that allows limited thinning and clearcutting of young stands growing inside pre-existing protected areas, including designated old-growth reserves. The provision is meant to ensure that enough young growth is available to support the industry. However, despite a habitat restoration component, it has drawn vigorous objections from nearly the entire Alaska environmental community, as well as critical comments from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Loggers and their allies aren’t pleased either, given the uncertainties that remain around how much young forest will be ready to cut and when. The Forest Service and Alaska launched a sweeping three-year survey to help clear that up this summer, but already, the state’s U.S. lawmakers have vowed to block the transition plan under the next administration. “We were not given the choice to decide if the tongass [sic] should transition to Young Growth,” Eric Nichols, a committee member and partner in a large log-exporting business called Alcan Forest Products, fumed by email in October: “This was a political decision made in DC with NO public involvement.”
That’s why conservationists are leery of an ever-creeping transition timeline: It means chiseling away at swatches of wildlife-sustaining old growth in the parts of the forest where timber harvest is still allowed, and where cutting has already exacted a toll.
Indeed, a big old-growth timber sale called Big Thorne—which the Forest Service views as the first pillar in the bridge that will carry industry to its young-growth future—is moving forward, despite concerns about the local Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) population.
In 2013, outgoing Alaska Department of Fish and Game wolf expert Dave Person stopped the sale that would impact more than 6,000 acres with a brief suggesting that the harvest and its new roads could irreparably disrupt Prince of Wales’ precarious balance among people, wolves, and Sitka blacktailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis), a vitally important food resource for rural residents. Wolf populations were already falling because logging roads allowed hunters and poachers easy access into their habitats. And deer faced deepening risks with continued cover loss. If their population crashed, as it had in other heavily logged parts of the Tongass during heavy snow years, pressure on wolves would increase further as people sought to protect their own share of meat, Person warned.
Ultimately, the Forest Service worked with the state to limit wolf hunting to address the problem, rather than significantly altering the timber sale, and Viking, which landed the contract, started logging in 2015, despite ongoing litigation. That’s decreased any likelihood of a wolf rebound, Person said this October. “When I started work there beginning in the 1990s, our estimate was 300 to 350.” This year, the estimate was 69 to 167. “It’s a Greek tragedy in my mind—the whole chronology is already written, everybody plays their role, and nothing ever changes.”
Meanwhile, the forest’s rare, slow-growing, ancient red and yellow cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) trees may be in danger of vanishing from unprotected lands under an extended timeline for old growth logging, says Juneau-based naturalist Richard Carstensen, who’s done wide-ranging surveys of the region. That’s because their especially high-value wood is one of the few things that still make timber sales here financially feasible. “Why does it count that these are the last really ancient cedar forests in the world? Well, why not just protect them because of that,” he said. “If instead of measuring loss in the volume of wood cut per year, we asked how many years it took to grow the cut trees, we might discover that current logging on public and private land now matches or exceeds the ‘hemorrhage decades’ of the 1960s and ‘70s. I think our heads are in the sand.”
But the latest hemorrhage may mean the large-scale old-growth timber industry is already on its way out, because of basic economics. The industry has always required public subsidy to be competitive here: According to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report, while the Tongass spent an average of $12.5 million annually on its timber program from 2005 to 2014, it drew in just $1.1 million in average annual revenue.
And yet even with continued federal spending and the Forest Service increasingly loosening restrictions on sales of raw logs to more lucrative export markets, the industry has struggled. The number of old trees valuable enough, concentrated in great enough numbers, and accessible enough to pay their way out of these rugged woods is simply running out, conservationists argue, driving loggers into slower-growing and more marginal stands to clean out what’s left. The Forest Service had to scour the landscape for scraps to even assemble the acreage necessary to make up the Big Thorne sale. Some, like Nichols and Dahlstrom, blame the Roadless Rule; the Forest Service agrees that it makes timber sales difficult. But others say removing it wouldn’t help: The swaths of forest it protects are roadless largely because they weren’t economic to develop in the first place.
At current old-growth cutting rates, said David Albert, director of conservation science for the Alaska chapter of The Nature Conservancy, “I don’t think we have 15 years.”
Coffman Cove, on northern Prince of Wales, is a tidy collection of buildings along a clear, boat-lined bay. Past a school and new wood-fired greenhouse where students will learn hydroponic vegetable growing, beyond some plastic flamingos I’d been instructed to watch for, I found Misty Fitzpatrick’s house backed up to the sea. Inside, Fitzpatrick, 35, with a dark bun and a no-bullshit demeanor, fussed with a colander‘s worth of fresh oysters. She grew up in the floating logging camps that once roved island beaches. Her dad sawed trees for a pulp mill, marking their numbers on his hard-hat brim with wax pencil as invoice for good wages that kept his kids comfortable when they weren’t running wild in the woods. Fitzpatrick is happy to give her 5-year-old daughter the same free-range childhood. “She loves to go out and hunt and fish. You can raise your kids to be really capable,” she told me. ”You just have to work harder to get ’em socialized.” As if on cue, a tiny girl sprinted into the house, pants-less—fresh from chasing salmon up a creek.
But Fitzpatrick isn’t providing for her daughter with logging wages. Though Coffman Cove started as a logging camp, today its jobs are mostly in tourism, fishing, local government, construction, and the school. In essence, it’s already transitioned, for better or for worse—as have most Southeast communities, many of which now depend heavily on cruise ship traffic. Fitzpatrick’s oysters were for a road-paving crew staying in her five rental cabins. There are more than 125 guest beds in this town of 180 permanent residents, Fitzpatrick said. “I love the community. I just worry about not being able to attract families. It’s becoming more and more dominantly retirees.”
That can make it difficult to keep rural schools open: State funding rules require at least 10 students. When Fitzpatrick was a kid, she remembers 30 or 40 in Coffman Cove. Today, despite the beautiful facilities, there are just 13. Meanwhile, Prince of Wales’ unemployment rate hovers over 12 percent, twice the state average.
When I met her, Fitzpatrick and a group of other community leaders were gearing up to try to help address some of those issues through a natural resource lens. Their goal is to provide the Forest Service with a list of projects that are important to locals, as the agency gathers data that will move the transition forward on the ground. She hopes it will build a more sustainable foundation for the island’s communities between the timber boom of the past and the building tourism boom.
It’s still unclear whether future young-growth logging will help with that any better than present old-growth logging has. If local mills simply churn out boards, it will be difficult to compete with the massive, automated mills that process young growth elsewhere in the world. And since most mills here don’t have the right equipment anyway, young trees will mostly be exported to Asian markets at first. That will help support contracting jobs—loggers, truckers, dock workers, and others—and in turn support forest-thinning projects to restore wildlife habitat in the dense second growth. But many more people could be employed if companies figured out how to locally process younger trees into value-added materials. That remains the highest aspiration for those hoping to reconcile conservation with timber jobs here. And for now, at least, it seems just beyond reach.
Map by James Davidson