Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reflections in Blue and Green, Part 1

    I spent two weeks in summer in Southeast Alaska years ago and stumbled into a fight among environmentalists, the Forest Service, polluters, and Japanese investors that resonated like no other. It's a complicated story not published before, about a gorgeous place and a dark legacy going all the way back to World War II. This is the first installment:                                        

          There's a Tongass among us and you should know about it...

                                            The Place
   The coastal mountains — radical tectonic up-thrusts — are dimly perceptible through the clouds, with dark faults in the snowcaps, and sudden bursts of immense green conifer- forested slopes. Seen from the air, muskeg flats reflect the sky like mirror shards, and bright, braided streams feed the azure inland extension of the Pacific Ocean. Rocky beaches are defined by some geometric accumulation that gradually reveals itself to be logs, thousands of them, an endless littoral of sear, bleached Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedar.
   Tongass: the word resonates like struck bronze. Some years ago I flew to southeastern Alaska to look into the extraordinary business arrangement involving the Tongass National Forest and a Japanese conglomerate, intrigued by the contradictions: foreigners taking spruce and hemlock from public lands that Americans were not entitled to and paying a lot less for the privilege than it was worth. What's more, this had been going on for half a century, a period during which the most profound social and technological changes had occurred in America, including the triumphs of the environmental movement, with federal agencies rendered accountable through science and the courts and a global perception affected about the fragility of species and resources. But "up here" was a place sprinkled with old growth where the past was still being played out and through which ran powerful strands of the culture.
  The United States Forest Service was and still is responsible for more than 100 million acres throughout the United States. The question had arisen: How can this federal agency consistently go against the wisdom of its own experts, and the desires of most of its citizens, in the aftermath of the debacles of the northern spotted owl and the Exxon Valdez? One answer lay in the Tongass, the largest of our national timberlands as well as the largest temperate rain forest on earth, a concern of such disparate personalities as William Henry Seward, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Gen. Douglas T. MacArthur. Full of biological promise, it was being cut and virtually given away, the word “Tongass” appearing now and then in news stories about other places and issues as members of Congress sought to link logging on the Tongass to unrelated legislation, when no other national forest received such treatment.
The word itself is Tlingit for a smallish tribe south of Ketchikan but denotes most of the Alexander Archipelago, that sloping handle of southeast Alaska fused to British Columbia by glaciers and deep valleys. Essentially an oceanic phenomenon, the Tongass' 17 million acres contain the world's largest concentration of bears so packed with salmonoid protein that they dwarf their grizzly cousins in Canada and Montana, a distinct sub-species of wolf, plentiful stocks of fish like those that once crowded the Columbia and Snake rivers, and birds of prey winging over the threshold of the Endangered Species Act.
  The Tongass National Forest, created in 1907 by T.R. himself, was as part of his larger, radical conservation efforts. Shortly thereafter the U.S. Forest Service, eager to put the saw to its prime commodity, promoted the idea of pulp mills on the Tongass, encouraged by a territorial government dreaming of economic development and statehood. There begins a cautionary tale of official naivete and mismanagement, of public and private greed, of dishonesty and illegality on a scale fittingly grand, one of the more disastrous collisions of nature and civilization. The tale is rooted in Washington, D.C., and in Tokyo, as well as Alaska, and extends into the moment as Congress considers—again and again—the notion of our dwindling commons.


The dyspeptic Volkswagon Rabbit had no muffler. There were large cracks in the windshield; only one wiper worked. The union man piloted this noisesome ruin toward Silver Bay, near Sitka, through the gathering twilit gloom. He had been a millwright in machinery maintenance at the Alaska Pulp Corporation (APC) and spokesman for Local 962 of the International Paperworkers when it struck the mill in Sitka back in 1986, before the strike was broken with the use of outside labor. He testified in Washington, D.C. before a House sub-committee in favor of the Tongass Timber Reform Act, and criticized APC.
"When I got back, I was sitting in the Nugget with my wife,” he said, “and this scab tapped me on the shoulder. He said, 'Hey, dude, you're fighting a losing battle.' The phone threats started right after that—dirty names, comments hard to remember. The back window of my Dodge was broken, then the side windows were shot out. I started stashing guns around the house. I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop that."
He had blue eyes and a piratical squint. A supporter of the Tongass Timber Reform Act when it still contained language that would have ended Congress's automatic appropriations to APC, he asked the congressmen during public testimony, "Why should the workers at the Sitka mill subsidize the lobbying and other activities of the Industrial Bank of Japan, when they are already being subsidized by the U.S. government under the 50-year contract? How many times must we pay these people to come in and take our timber?"
He was not allowed to return to work at APC’s mill and, according to him, black-listed everywhere in town. But he refused to leave. He filed lawsuits and appeals relating to APC that left him an expert in industrial effluent, international finance, civil law, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, as well as broke.
Among his possessions were photographs of dingy waste water pouring from a large pipe into the bay, canning jars full of dark fluids eating holes in the metal lids, and many documents. A letter he wrote to the Sitka Daily Sentinel on the subject of honor included the question: "Is Japan being misrepresented by a few self-serving, greedy individuals? ... If the answer is no, then I say to my beloved state of Alaska and the United States of America, 'Beware of Japan. Her offer of friendship is but a Trojan horse that once taken in will open to plunder our vast resources...'"
Metal towers reared on the edge of the bay, in a soggy staging area paved with compacted fly ash. In the six-story "digestors" wood chips had not many months before been mixed with sulfuric acid and steam, and cooked to break down the glue holding the fibers together, releasing tannin and lignin. The “red liquor” had to be massively evaporated, and during the multi-stage wash process vast amounts of lye and steam were used to produce a substance resembling gray toilet paper—pulp—bathed repeatedly in chlorine. Rivers of waste went into the bay while a deathly white, paper-thin substance emerged from the line in rolls half as big as boxcars, most of it shipped abroad for the manufacture of cellophane and other synthetics.
Nothing emerged from the stacks now; the log boom on the surface of the bay contained none of the brown froth in the photographs. "The chairman of APC cried poor for years," said the union man, over the rumble of his engine. "He said he needed concessions, yet he was dabbling in stocks with a $187 million investment fund. His collateral was these trees. He knew what was coming—lawsuits, EPA judgements. The question is, did he leave toxic substances here? Will the mill go bankrupt and the feds have to pay for cleaning it up?"
The Russians called Sitka New Archangel. Here the sale of Alaska to America was formalized by Secretary of State Seward, not far from the cemetery harboring the remains of early Russian traders and their Orthodox church. Sitka reminded me of Maine— a thicket of masts in the marina, diminutive wooded islands bobbing in the sound, passengers from a Princess cruise ship wandering Lincoln Street in pastel jumpsuits protected by clear plastic.                     

   The sign in the Old Harbor Bookstore said, "Please don't drip on the books."
The Backdoor cafe drew a polyglot assemblage of fishermen, students, and seven members of the Sitka Conservation Society. Two wore beards and one a bow tie, hardly a revolutionary cell, and yet I had been told by a Forest Service official in Juneau, "I'm surprised that bookstore hasn't been fire-bombed."
One of the owners worked for the mill as an analytical chemist in the Seventies but quit because he "felt like an accomplice in the damage." He opened the bookstore, and the mill forbade its employees to buy books there because the owner was quoted in the newspaper criticizing the mill's emissions. After the announcement of the cancellation of the long-term contract, he received a Fax wishing him dead; the police chief called to ask if he had yet received a letter bomb.
A mechanical engineer who also worked at the mill said, "We were using 2 million pounds of chlorine a month. It went into the air and the water." A Forest Service study, later cancelled by the Forest Service, discovered that no lichens existed on trees within a half-mile of the mill, and no normal lichen growth within 13 miles. Fish caught near the out-fall pipe from the mill were not to be touched, much less eaten. Mooring cables were sheathed in wood fiber. "Visibility in the water had been reduced by 90 per cent."
The company blamed this on muskeg run-off, or "glacier flower"—sediment from melting glaciers. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation had allowed the mill to operate without a permit for four years and had never made APC meet the state's already lax standards. One of those meeting in the Back Door “got cranked,” as he put it, and brought the class action nuisance suit against the Alaska Pulp Corporation for polluting that forced the revelations about the finances of the chairman, one George Ishiyama.
The plaintiff’s attorney had worked on the case for almost three years and estimated that APC had violated the Clean Water Act 2,000 times and had been in continuous violation of the Clean Air Act since 1978. In the attorney's view, the long-term contracts to the Alaska Pulp Company and the Ketchikan Pulp Company provided a shocking example of government making an imprudent decision and then being taken advantage of. The real victim was the taxpayer. At a hearing conducted by the state on the prospect of converting the mill to fiberboard manufacture, the plaintiff asked some pertinent questions about particulate in the air. "The next day my car at the harbor had two windows smashed," he said, "and a big gash cut in the metal."
While I was in Sitka the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation listed the mill as one of Alaska's 10 most polluted sites. I called up the mill to ask about this and other things, and a few minutes later received a call back, not from Sitka, but from Seattle. A man identifying himself as an outside director of APC said, "I'm not prepared to get into a deposition-like conversation," provided me with a Fax number, and hung up.
Already the mill's governors had slipped away. The newspaper ran a stock photo of wrinkly old Ishiyama; the city administrator spoke of him as a kind of corporate Shroud of Turin that had removed itself permanently to the far side of the cold Pacific. The company had been active for years in the municipal life of Sitka, providing amenities like a playing field at the public school. The city administration blamed environmental activists in Washington and Alaska for closing the mill and seemed unconcerned about possible environmental depravation.
Tourism, Alaska's fastest growing commercial enterprise, does not value clear-cuts and dirty bays; it’s a factor in Sitka's economy, and the mill closing had not significantly affected the city's population or the value of its real estate. Another employer of note in Sitka was the Forest Service, which had assisted APC for years and was being pressured by Alaska's congressional delegation to keep up the cut on the Tongass.
   The Forest Service spent most of its money on subsidizing logging, mining, and grazing, and during the approximate half-century of the APC and KPC contracts had become increasingly compartmentalized, its professionals encouraged to move from one forest to another, where few saw the results of their actions. The service was at that time lurching in reaction to public demands for reform, its problems compounded by massive fires in the West, the implications of the Endangered Species Act, and the wishes of the public to see preserved some of irreplaceable landscapes.                      

  The diminutive octagonal Russian fort on a hill behind Sitka was a pretty reminder of a once-mighty presence. The pulp mill squatting on the far side of town, however, parodied contemporary developmental ambitions, its indelible print in the industrial detritus the union man spoke of: fly ash under various roads and in the woods, on the bottom of the bay a mat of anaerobic fibers, decomposing logs and pulp, and snarls of cable.
Superfund scientists later went to Sitka, rented a 60-foot boat with a downrigger, and cruised Silver Bay, collecting samples from the bottom with dredging gear. They also collected at the mill site. The samples were sent to a laboratory in Seattle, but the outcome was uncertain. Proclaiming a Superfund site involved public listings, public comment, and various maneuvers within the EPA that could take years. Meanwhile a Republican Congress came to power that was not sympathetic to the EPA's mission.
The class action lawsuit brought by the former APC employee never went to trial. APC agreed to a settlement before the charges could be publicly aired whereby the company would contribute $2 million to benefit educational and cultural projects in Sitka. One recipient was to be the high school, where a program would be set up, with astounding cynicism, to "encourage young men and women to explore and pursue the study of science and the environment."
   Then APC filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service for canceling the long-term contract. The corporation that had fed off the Tongass for half a century wanted another billion dollars. The EPA was still looking into the mess the company left, the end product of the long, incestuous love affair between the Forest Service and the timber industry in Alaska. One local antagonist summed it up: "The Forest Service more or less gave APC trees, paid them to cut them and take them out of the country, and then sell them to themselves."                  
             (Next: The Deal)
  My travel books, The Kingdom in the Country and Vanishing America, can be found at:
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