Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 8

      (This series begins with http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2014/07/theres-tongass-among-us.html)                                                      

       Prince of Wales Island, by water

     The trip, like most in the pelagic envelope of Southeast, involved aquatics. It was launched only after a careful vetting of water repellents: dry bags, rain gear, Juneau boots, tents, canoes. There were six of us who set out in the rain on Hatchery Creek, a clear muskeg stream on Prince of Wales Island tinged with what might have been molasses, a watery paradox of light and darkness leading south into the Honker Divide.
The Russians, masters of the readily available, cut some of these coastal forests for charcoal in the nineteenth century, after decimating the populations of sea otter, walrus and people in the Aleutians, but they shied away from Alaska's daunting interior. Not so the Americans, drawn to what became Alaska by its proximity to Asia and the prospects of trade there. The Western Union Telegraph Company envisioned an intercontinental telegraph line, the ongoing expansionist dream of the 1840s, running northwestward through Russian America and Siberia to St. Petersburg.
In 1857 Western Union financed an expedition, and although the project was cancelled after the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable, data amassed by the Alaskan venture were instrumental in persuading Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867. Secretary of State William H. Seward's "folly" was arguably the most valuable addition to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, involving as it did a land mass of continental proportions that has become the earth's last such extensive, biologically rich and diverse, reasonably intact natural refuge of inestimable value to the planet.                      
The colors would have excited Monet, but not all the untidy botany: skunk cabbage blooming on the banks, big fallen timber cozening the bends, what Alaskans refer to affectionately as "the woody bushes." Prince of Wales, the third largest island in North America, has produced billions of board feet of timber in four decades, and the Forest Service wanted an additional 450 million. So did what was left of the Ketchikan Pulp Company, the governor, and Alaskan's congressional delegation.
The canoeists - including me and daughter Susanna - wanted this section preserved as a conduit for animals and the occasional human. One of them, a professional environmentalist in hip boots and an Anarack, said, "Fifty per cent of Tongass timber that has been cut has been cut on Prince of Wales. Now they want to clear-cut..." He paused, water dripping from his nose onto the map, "...right over there. They have to be stopped."
John Muir was his spiritual predecessor. Muir traveled the length of Southwest in a canoe and wrote about its "endless rhythm and beauty." He was a member of the last Alaskan expedition of the century, also inspired by the prospect of the Asia trade. Edward Henry Harriman, railroad tycoon, having recently merged the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, wanted a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait so he could send trains from New York to Paris.
   In 1899, under the banners of science and triumphant capitalism, he and 25 scientists, professors, photographers and artists steamed up the Alaskan coast aboard Harriman's George W. Elder with personal servants, two stenographers, a doctor, a nurse, a chaplain and 11 hunters. Nature was encountered, but no tunnel site.                     

(Members of the Harriman Expedition on the wharf at Dutch Harbor, 1899, photographed by Edward Curtis.)

I tried to imagine Muir coping with the current environmental debate, with its overlapping government hegemonies and proliferating, explosive acronyms - "T-LUMP," "C-POW, "V-POP". The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed in 1980, established 5 million acres of wilderness on the Tongass, relatively little of it old-growth, and promised 450 million board feet of timber annually to the two pulp mills in Southeast. This perpetuated the exclusion of smaller timber operators and kept the price paid by APC and KPC well below market value.
To assure that the cut was achieved, the Forest Service received $40 million a year from the U.S. Treasury, a bonanza to be spent on road building, studies and other enhancements important to the regional bureaucracy. A decade after passage of ANILCA, almost half the big trees on the Tongass had been cut, and the Forest Service had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the below cost timber sales. Congress then pressured the Forest Service to revise its Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) to include some protection for old-growth and wildlife.
The service, in defense, used a working draft of the document to convince the Senate that it would manage the Tongass correctly, thereby getting the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) passed. The Forest Service was instructed by Congress to pay more attention to the real price of trees, and the demands of forest users other than timber companies, but it soon launched a revision of the revised Tongass Land Management Plan that essentially eliminated the strong provisions for preserving old-growth.          

The cabin on Galea Lake was a bare, one room structure with a viewshed full of cutthroat trout rising to mirrored old-growth. The cabin is maintained by the Forest Service, which by law has to provide for all users, hence the words on the rustic signs outside all national forests attest ("Land of many uses"). But parsimony was apparent in the scant accommodations and trail markers swallowed in the Honker's profusion.
The lake amplified the nasal insistence of Canada geese, replaced during the night by the calling of wolves, the most enduring cliche' of American wildness and a sound few Americans have actually heard, powerful and reverberant.
  Portages in ancient forests are complicated by roots the size of pythons. Unabashed photosynthesis produces a biomass here unmatched in other rain forests, including the Amazon's. The Tongass husbands distinctly visible organisms, too, among them black flies excited by the discovery of human beings hauling canoes over two miles of needle tamp and muskeg. Sweat mingled with some of the 200 inches of rain falling annually in Southeast. Whenever my toil ceases, the chill is there, to be combated with hard salami, raisins, peanut butter and iodized draughts of the Thorne River auger against hypothermia, or so I hope.               

That's Susanna (feralstudio.com) second from left, and me far right.
    Next and finally: A coda for all time

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