Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, 9

                                                 The View from On High
          The Sikorsky Long Ranger's plastic bubble, high above the Honker Divide, trembled from the action of the rotors. Commentary was provided by the chief forester from the Ketchikan Pulp Company, owner of helicopter, using interlocking audio cables and headsets. "That canoe route down there is for the strong of back and weak of mind," he said, not knowing I had been down there the week before. "People say these vast lands should be saved. Saved for what?"
    Somewhere below was an island where afternoon sunlight cuts through trees at the shore to reveal faces carved in wood. You have to know where to look, and few do. Consequently the renditions of beaver, wolf and man have survived the century, unmolested by all but the weather, dumbly scrutinizing passing motor launches instead of the high-prowed canoes that once nuzzled the coast. Kneel there and you can still feel, beneath the pine needles, rows hoed long ago by the Haida for planting potatoes. Thank god these guys didn't know where that island was.
     The Long Ranger passed over the very spot in Thorne Lake where Susanna had cooked pesto with macaroni for our party, on the bottom of an overturned aluminum canoe and in glorious celebration of the last portage. That day we had all been proud of an accomplishment that could not be quantified nor explained to the chief forester: "People who aren't in shape aren't going to be able to get in there," he said. "We already have eight million acres like that. That's what really grinds us up here - it's saved for the environmental elite. I can't take my 66-year-old mother in there because there's no road."
     The paradox of the forester's words was apparent from the air: logging, and logging roads, meant access to what would no longer be there if his mother had arrived to see it. Wild places were too difficult for ordinary citizens, according to the former governor, Walter Hickle, who once pointed out that Alaska "can kill you." But wilderness remains a commodity in insufficient supply to meet demands, even in Alaska.                      

     Broderick Nash wrote in Wilderness and the American Mind, "Alaska represents inhospitable environmental qualities in extremes unprecedented in previous American experience." And, "powered by modern technology, dreams could become realities in Alaska." Projects that required a decade or more in the Old West can now be done here in a season. What KPC considered an aerial affirmation of plentiful timber on Prince of Wales demonstrated instead that only this corridor of old-growth remained between Sweetwater Lake and Thorne Bay.
     Meanwhile about 80 per cent of the trees cut on the Tongass were being shipped abroad, most of them to Japan, not transformed into pulp or otherwise into jobs for Alaskans but simply lost to the nation or their origin.
    The Forest Service's 100-year rotation plan presumed the forest would return in force after being clear-cut, but most biologists agreed that a 300-year rotation was more realistic. After the first few years, the regenerating forest constituted a dense, uniform, mostly sterile palisade; logging by small operators, slower, relatively benign, virtually eliminated by the long term timber contracts, would have produced a quite different landscape.
     People in Southeast, riven with transcendent notions of freedom and the natural beauty - Misty Fiord, Glacier Bay - were party to some spectacular ugliness as well: clear-cuts like patches of mange on the firred haunches of mountains, timber camps with the social problems associated with inner cities (substance, spouse, and child abuse), and the drizzling smokestacks of the Ketchikan Pulp mill, visible across Clarence Strait where most of the Prince of Wales timber was bound.
     KPC was operating its mill on an interim basis, all the while selling the Tongass timber abroad. Management claimed declining demand for pulp on the world market no longer made the business profitable, but there were bigger problems at the mill, much like those engendered at Sitka. Louisiana Pacific was considering selling that smelly industrial hulk, no doubt influenced by the two raids on the mill by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the last 18 months. Agents were searching for evidence of possible criminal violations of environmental laws; the federal government had also filed a civil suit alleging numerous violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts — the Sitka APC mess all over again.                    

     During a tour of the mill I saw firsthand the enormous amount of water required to wash pulp, felt the weight of the past in the decrepit equipment and saw it in the faces of the people working there, actors in a discredited drama that had begun at the time they were born. "Log the Earth First" advised the sign attached to the glass cubicle behind which sat the saw operator. "We'll log the other planets later."
     Outside the mill, the supervisor viewed industrial jet skis, called "log broncs," used to sort timber in the crowded bay. He acknowledged that most Alaskans are unhappy with the mill. "It was set up to make use of the forest and was too successful," he said bitterly, "Now people can't stand the sight of it," in large part because of the selfish decisions of those running it, and the venality of those politicians serving them.

     The Environmental Protection Agency would eventually determine that the land occupied by the Ketchikan Pulp Company  was contaminated with lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, and petroleum compounds. Contaminated soils were removed and EPA placed long-term controls on the property to protect the cleanup. The bottom of Ward Cove was contaminated with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and 4-methylphenol. EPA dredged about three acres of sediments in Ward Cove, capped about 27 acres with clean material, and left another 50 acres of contaminated sediments to recover naturally, if they could, all at huge cost to taxpayers. 
   KPC officially went out of business in 1997. The mill was later demolished by explosives and tickets sold to locals who wanted to watch.                   
   (This is the last post in the Tongass series, which started on July 2.)

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