Sunday, July 6, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 3


Within the 52-foot salmon purse seiner's scabrous hull lies sophisticated refrigeration and navigational gear. The skipper put out confidently from Auke Bay, near Juneau, bound for Hoonah, the native settlement on Chichagof Island. He followed a course through the Saginaw Channel, around the Mansfield Peninsula, Admiralty Island, south through Lynn Channel, around Point Couverden-"a good place to soak [catch] a halibut"-and then west into Icy Straight.
Humpback whales rolled in 800 feet of water, their broad, black tails glossy under gray skies. Dall porpoises approached at speed and caromed off the prow like aquatic skateboarders. The skipper has seen it all before. He was president of United Fishermen of Alaska and the Southeast Seiners Association and testified years ago before a congressional committee about the Tongass Timber Reform Act. More emphasis should be placed on preserving fish habitat, he said.
Clear-cuts like those visible on the southern tip of Chilkat Peninsula, all part of the Tongass national forest, have a proven, ill effect upon salmon. "A lot of fishermen have worked both sides of this issue—hauled logs, done time at the mill. “They're sensitive about putting people out of jobs. But it's real hard nowadays to fish salmon and not be some kind of environmentalist."
Fishing and processing fish employed more people in Alaska in the 1990s than any other commercial activity, and the natural lamination of the industry to the conservation movement discomforted the state's longstanding extractive alliance. But Sen. Ted Stevens, ranking Republican on the Interior appropriations committee, blocked a study of salmon reproduction, known as PACFISH, on the Tongass, attaching a separate rider to the appropriations bill. 
    The study would have increased the buffers along streams from 100 to 300 feet. Fishermen in Alaska opposed Stevens's rider, including the trollers who employed about one out of every 25 Alaskans, but Stevens's actions were endorsed by Alaska's other, former Republican senator, Frank Murkowski, by Con. Don Young, and by the former governor who “still doesn't know the difference between trawlers and trollers. His aids try to tell him. It's like listening to Lenny Bruce teach Lyndon Johnson to say 'Negro.'"
Hoonah was a Tlinget village with a dock high enough to accommodate 20-foot tides, dusty streets, and a medley of well-used and abandoned machinery. Beyond little bungalows built in the '40s were some of the most extensive clear-cuts in Southeast, the dun-colored progeny of the regional native corporation, Sealaska. Native business enterprises had to conform only to the state's notoriously lax, rarely enforced environmental restraints. They had done more damage to the landscape than their mainstream rivals and had taken advantage of tax loopholes to sell debt to other, larger corporations. This led to the logging of otherwise unsullied Admiralty Island by the likes of Disney.
The Tlinget did not like talking about this. The local member of the regional council wasn’t available, and neither was a tribal elder practicing ceremonial dance. Two people who would talk were Gertrude and Bill, she Tlinket, he Haida, who lived together in what might be called a subsistent relationship. "This logging is detestable," she said, and had opposed it for years. "But the people are afraid to speak out."
Natives were no more in control of their corporations than Anglos were of theirs, a surprise to me. She and Hanlon thought the Forest Service intimidated those opposed to logging through its public hearings, which could be technical and contentious, thus enhancing the cut. Bill added, "The Forest Service and Sealaska are in collusion. They play on that fear."
His conversation, like his library, was sprinkled with books about the CIA and the KGB. The conspiratorial bent dated him, as did his graying ponytail. Remnants of east coast-west coast tensions in this remote place were surprising. The couple’s travels indicated the long reach of Native American activism—Washington, D.C., Mexico City, even Libya; they talked of "peoples' courts" for native Alaskans, autonomous cells within the over-arching polity of national forest, state and country, all of them thoroughly white. Native sovereignty, the latest demand in the ongoing unease between the populations in Alaska, asked new concessions and drove some white Alaskans wild.                
The Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act was supposed to have resolved all that with money and 44 million acres. Almost 700,000 acres went to natives in Southeast, including some of the best trees on the Tongass, and in one decade 500,000 of those acres have been logged, an unimaginable vastness.
The shacks remained in Hoonah, and a new Forest Service headquarters rose with a view of the native-driven clear-cuts shackling mountains like granite pushpins thrust into clouds. Few jobs on the high, tide-tugged dock or in the lumber camps across the bay went to natives, but there were the dividends. All natives received them, even those opposed to their corporations which were going after the timber freed up by the cancellation of the APC contract.                      

The logged land had the best trees and the best of everything else that contributed to subsistence living. "I hate that word," said Gertrude. She held up a basket made from beaten spruce roots, which were disappearing from lowlands dried out by logging. "Every day of my life I deal with the land, for medicine, food, art. I can't live without it."
Her father and brothers traced ever-widening arcs on the Tongass, searching for game beyond the reach of armed sports from Juneau and the logging camps who drove the new roads looking for easily-blastable Sitka black-tail deer. But her freezer was full: venison, luminous frozen fish, containers of salmon berries, blueberries, gray berries, strawberries, cranberries, silk berries
    For dinner there were slabs of broiled salmon steak with dried seaweed — "Tlinget popcorn" — beach asparagus, coffee and more coffee, while in a corner stood canoe paddles, mementoes rather than tools, one carved with an eagle holding a dog salmon in its beak.             

           (Next: Admiralty Island)

 My travel books, The Kingdom in the Country and Vanishing America, can be found at:

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