Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 6


          The Goshawk Chronicles

Evolutionary development has been extraordinarily fast on the Tongass. Cut off from the continent by mountains and glaciers, protected from north and south by its unique insularity, the Alexander Archipelago has entertained no genetic dumping. Many bird subspecies are found only here and on the coast of British Columbia: the Swainson's thrush, the Prince of Wales river otter, the Coronation Island vole, the Wrangle Island red-backed vole, the Alexander Archipelago wolf, probably the only one in North America uncorrupted by coyote genes.
The study of island biogeographybiology as a distinct product of insularity—is fruitful on the Tongass. The natural isolation afforded by thousands of rocky up-thrusts in an inland sea increases the chances of extinction, since populations are small and more vulnerable to random, or "stochastic", events like all of one species being reduced to a single sex. The smaller the population, the greater the chances of extinction.
Conservation biology, concerned with the propagation of species, has taken the concept of island biogeography and applied it on dry land, where logging has isolated what forest there is and created unnatural insularity. The spotted owl in Washington state, from this perspective, lives in what are essentially islands of old growth in seas of clear-cuts. The problem is compounded on the Tongass because clear-cuts occur on real islands. Habitat conservation areas must therefore perform their function in the midst of cutover land masses already surrounded by deep Pacific waters.
Forest Service supervisors view conservation biology the way Latin American dictators view liberation theology. Forest Service employees, including biologists, are expected, in the lapidary phrase of the supervisor in Ketchikan, "to be constructive." If he thinks a proposed cut will be more detrimental to wildlife than is legal, he told me, "I can tweak it" © make minor alterations to conform to the technicality of the law.             

The Queen Charlotte goshawk (Accipiter gentilis laingi), is endemic to Southeast and the coast of British Columbia, a unique biome composed of islands and islands within islands. It is closely related to the northern goshawk found in much of the western United States, including the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, where a slight, bearded biologist named D. Coleman Crocker-Bedford used to work. There he conducted exhaustive studies of the acrobatic, finicky raptor that serves as a useful indicator species, and discovered that goshawks require extensive stands of densely canopied mature and old growth forests to prosper.
He advised his Forest Service supervisor in the late '80s that timber harvesting should be reduced in the Southwest to protect this and other species, and was advised by his FS superiors not to publish his findings. He did publish, and an independent scientist later praised the study as "one of the most extensive and rigorous investigations ever done into the habitat requirements of a raptorial bird." But Crocker-Bedford ended up in Ketchikan.
In 1990 he chaired an interagency group of biologists from the Forest Service and Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, the so-called "V-pop" committee, concerned with "viable populations" of wildlife. It sought to determine if requirements of the National Forest Management Act were being met on the Tongass, and the goshawk was just one of several species in doubt.
At the time a joint conference of the U.S. Congress was resolving differences over the Tongass Timber Reform Act. A draft environmental impact statement had called for a quarter of the Tongass' remaining old growth to be permanently side aside for wildlife, most of it in tracts of more than 1,000 acres and some as large as 40,000 acres, and the Forest Service wanted none of this. It lobbied individual members of Congress, informing them that wildlife could be protected while 450 million board feet were being cut every year, and Congress capitulated.
The committee on which Crocker©Bedford sat recommended maintaining old-growth "cores," wildlife transit corridors, and habitat conservation areas (HCAs) for several species. This would have curtailed, or eliminated, some logging. The regional forester in Juneau ordered a supplemental environmental impact statement prepared. (In the Forest Service, if a review displeases management, it is re©reviewed, sometimes indefinitely.) This time the committee's recommendations were rejected.                    
Crocker-Bedford resigned from the chairmanship but not from the Forest Service. In the fall of 1991 he was deposed in a suit brought by loggers in the Southwest, where his original goshawk study was being used to shut down timber sales under requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The timber companies sought to discredit the study and its author.
Being deposed was not pleasant, Crocker-Bedford told me. He was advised that he could not have his own attorney and had to be represented by a political appointee from the U.S. Attorney's office. He was interrogated for fourteen hours by the timber company lawyers attempting to discredit him, before his own attorney weighed in. 
    "He was worse than they were," said Crocker-Bedford, of the representative from Justice during the Bush administration. When Crocker-Bedford asked this lawyer what effect he thought Crocker-Bedford's ordeal would have on other wildlife biologists, on soils people and hydrologists, the lawyer said, "We know what we're doing."
The Forest Service had let the spotted owl get away from it; that wasn't going to happen with the goshawk.
Crocker-Bedford was accused of negative networking and advised to stay out of discussions of goshawk management and conservation biology. He was ordered not to attend a goshawk seminar and not to defend his study or his reputation. A colleague told him he would get a raise and more influence within the service if he discovered that clear-cuts and small trees were beneficial to wildlife.                    
  In 1992, Crocker-Bedford wrote to the chief of the service, then F. Dale Robertson: "You stated there must be no retaliation against employees who discover problems or recommend new management practices... Because the results of my Forest Service approved, careful monitoring were used in appeals and litigation, I have been subjected to repeated retaliation."
Nothing happened until after the election, when Jack Ward Thomas had been appointed and rumor had it that he would be coming to the Tongass. Service people began to say they were sorry that all those bad things had happened to Crocker-Bedford, but not that they had done them. This was not an isolated case. Many other wildlife biologists felt the chill of empirical objectives.
    One, Duane Fisher, a biologist in Juneau, had the unhappy task, in 1992, of incorporating the recommendations of the V-pop committee in the Forest Service's draft environmental impact study. Those recommendations included habitat conservation areas for the four most vulnerable species in the Tongass: bear, marten, wolf, and goshawk. If they had been adopted, the service would have been forced to set aside significantly more forest than it wished.
Fisher refused to reject the V-pop recommendations. "I came up with a high probability that a viability problem might occur in three ecological provinces out of 21," he said, in a mall outside of Juneau where I found him. "I didn't think it was that bad a risk assessment, "but my supervisor didn't like my conclusions."                  
    He wouldn't say so, but it seemed clear to me that the managers of the Tongass wanted an armor-plated forest plan, one without biological uncertainties. They had already tried to dilute the effects of logging on paper, known as "washing the data," by expanding the base under consideration to include the whole Tongass, most of which is rock, muskeg, ice and scrub, not old-growth. But mention of possible extinctions provided chinks that might later be attacked in court.
Fisher could have been ordered to change his conclusions, but that was legally risky for management. Instead, he was told to write more versions. He wrote four, and a Forest Service "writer-editor" wrote a fifth, but Fisher's boss, a road engineer, didn't like the conclusions. He rewrote the report himself, put in his own conclusions - that the forest didn't need additional wildlife habitat - and said they could cut 50 per cent of the old-growth left. So the Forest Service had two different recommendations, one tweaked on the drafting table to allow the cuts the service wanted, and another from the V-pop committee calling for big habitat conservation areas.
The V-pop committee report was again suppressed by the Forest Service. The service's second biologist in charge of the team of reviewing scientists quit in protest, as Crocker-Bedford had done, and Fisher ended up in the bureaucratic gulag with an unsatisfactory rating, pressured to take writing classes and an IQ test. He scored 122, near genius, an embarrassment for those claiming him mentally unequipped to write on the Forest Service's prescribed seventh grade level.
The real problem, of course, was what he was saying, not the way he said it. Yet another peer review was done, also by outside biologists. This one found that no recommendations so far for habitat preservation were sufficient to meet the requirements of the National Forest Management Act, an indication that Fisher's reports had in fact been thoroughly middle of the road. But Fisher was downgraded from GS12 to GS11; it was suggested that he might like to move to Yakitat, Southeast's equivalent of Omaha.                   
"I went through some rough times," he told me, without rancor. He started taking teenagers to Bible camp, umpiring at softball games after work. "That's how I coped."
  The road engineer in charge of the study of dwindling wildlife habitat on the Tongass was named Steven Brink. He was Duane Fisher's boss, and I met with him in the Juneau headquarters where the walls of the Forest Service conference room were covered with maps of the Tongass and charts of related activities and designations © prospective timber sales, set-asides, roads, wilderness, rivers, Tongass past, Tongass future. Logging was represented by black dots; much of the forest looked shot-gunned.          

"If the scientists had their way," said Brink, "we would stop logging and do a complete biological survey. That would kill the economic infrastructure in Southeast and cost $5 million a year for five years."
Better to continue to study the problem, in his view, and log at the same time. "Everything in life is a risk, including management of the forest... There is no evidence that we are having a substantial effect - threatening, or endangering - species."
As a GS14, Brink was one of the most powerful half dozen men on the Tongass, his attitude and appearance consonant with evolution within the Forest Service from the time when the long term timber contracts came into existence. Then the notion of wholesale development of America's national forests, including the building of roads into undisturbed areas, began to take on the glow of muscular philanthropy: engineers saw themselves aiding mankind, as well as harvesting a resource, producing wealth.
    They, not the foresters, rose in an agency that had previously thought of itself as primarily conservationist. But Brink's morphology was that of the hustling, midlevel corporate operative: bright paisley tie, aviator glasses, a touch of mousse, no chlorophyll tones long associated with the service. His words are chosen carefully. A scientist under his supervision was not pressured to take an IQ test and composition classes, he "was given the opportunity to improve his writing." As for the handling of the V-pop data, "if the decision makers felt I wasn't giving them all the information, they would replace me."
Brink worked for a time in Washington, D.C., learning the legal ways of the Forest Service. He was widely quoted in Alaska newspapers on the subject of habitat, using the perspective he gained in the capital: "Humans live in Northeast Washington... and survive and even reproduce, but that isn't their preferred habitat. They'd much rather live in Georgetown. Wildlife are much the same way." Brink and his colleagues had spent years building a defensible cut. Now the strategies reflected in the charts and maps around him were threatened by a bunch of biologists, and they weren't happy about it. "It's all politics," he said. "Maybe that's as it should be - politics is everything."                                                                      
The first Tongass timber sale after the APC contract cancellation totaled 61 million board feet and was 32 times the minimum bid set by the Forest Service. Senator Stevens wrote to the new forest supervisor there, urging him to continue the sizeable cut. "I appreciated our discussion on the recent petitions to list the goshawk and wolf as endangered or threatened in the Tongass. I conclude that very little study has been done related to these animals and sufficient baseline information is not yet available."
           (Next: The Chief)

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