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Forest Home: Taking a Stand for Conservation and Community
by Richard Nelson

Summer dawn arises at three a.m. in southeastern Alaska amid raven garblings and songs from the throats of varied thrushes. A slow light pours over the serrated mass of coastal mountains, the labyrinth of a thousand islands, the twisting fjords and sheer-walled valleys, the sedge meadows crisscrossed with bear trails, and the towering forest of ancient, sighing, dark-boughed trees.

Awakened by the chorus of bird voices, I step outside our home and look across Eastern Channel to the tiered mountain forelands of Baranof Island. Nearly all the surrounding territory belongs to America's largest national forest, some 26,500 square miles--an area roughly the size of West Virginia--encompassing the Alexander Archipelago and the adjacent mainland. The Tongass National Forest is distinguished not only by its size and beauty, but also by its rare, pristine qualities.

This is one of the last places in North America where every plant and animal species that existed before Columbus is still here, and it contains some of the largest stands of old-growth temperate rainforest left anywhere on earth. If it was located in any state except Alaska, the Tongass would probably not be a national forest, but one of our country's most celebrated national parks. Most Americans would probably choose strict protection for this extraordinary assemblage of natural treasures, and yet almost a million acres of Tongass rainforest have already been clearcut, leaving enormous tracts covered with stumps and slash, severely depleted wildlife habitat, a snarl of logging roads totaling thousands of miles. In this cool northern climate it takes at least two centuries to regenerate the full richness and complexity of an old-growth forest after clearcutting.

For the most part, decisions affecting the Tongass are made by officials in faraway places like Washington, D.C.. Alaska's three congressmen--strong advocates for the timber industry and ardent opponents of environmental protection--presently chair both the House and Senate Resource Committees, as well as the Senate Appropriations Committee. These men, who hold tremendous power over the Tongass, often claim Alaskans overwhelmingly support large timber interests. But lately a different message has come out of some Tongass communities, making it clear that residents have serious concerns about the forest and calling into question the views of their elected representatives. Local, grassroots conservation groups have taken the lead in educating people about Tongass issues and making community sentiments heard. In the process, they've learned that conservationists from distant, isolated places can have a significant national impact.

My home community of Sitka nests in the heart of both the Tongass and the forest debate. It's the sort of place many people dream about--small and congenial, located on a wild and stunningly beautiful island, a hundred air miles from the nearest city (Juneau), and accessible only by air or sea. A formidable climate--one of the wettest, cloudiest, chilliest, and stormiest in North America--helps to protect Sitka's idyllic qualities, limiting industrial development and keeping the population small. Yearly rainfall averages almost 100 inches, inspiring most newcomers to move on after a few sunless months, dreaming of the desert. Those who stay are unabashedly proud, bound together by a peculiar, unspoken, mossy-backed commonality and a kind of decency that's exceptional even by small-town standards.

Tlingit Indians make up a quarter of Sitka's population, infusing community life with the cultural richness of clan affiliations, potlatch ceremonials, and traditional knowledge of the natural world. Almost everyone, native or nonnative, eats wild foods harvested from the land or ocean. Unlike towns in the lower forty-eight states, subsistence fishing, hunting, and edible plant gathering are integral parts of Sitka's economy. In our own home, for example, the staple foods are venison and salmon we harvest ourselves, plus a variety of edibles ranging from abalone to huckleberries to red snappers. Nita and I spend many days each year smoking, canning, and freezing these nutritious, organic foods.

The foundation of Sitka's cash economy include commercial and charter fishing, regional government services, and the burgeoning tourist industry. Until several years ago, Sitka also had a Japanese-owned pulp mill that converted Tongass trees into a slurry shipped overseas to make products like rayon and cellophane. The mill held a unique fifty-year government contract guaranteeing steady supplies of low-priced timber from the Tongass and subsidizing other costs such as logging road construction. Closure of the mill brought far less economic impact than expected and helped to create a more open attitude in Sitka toward forest conservation. To feed the pulp mill, areas around Sitka were extensively clearcut twenty-five to thirty years ago, leaving scars that will take many human lifetimes to heal. Although logging since those early cuts has been farther away, the Forest Service is planning new timber sales within the core area important to Sitkans for hunting, fishing, tourism, and recreation.

Although every American citizen holds an equal stake in the Tongass, many southeastern Alaska residents feel their opinions should carry extra weight concerning use of these lands. About half of Sitka's 8,500 residents do not oppose clearcut logging in areas near town, contending it's the only way to attract timber jobs. But the other half want logging close by, restricted to lower impact selective methods, asserting more will be gained by letting the rainforest stand than by cutting it down for short-term profit.

This community brings into sharp and sometimes heated focus the modern conflict between two worldviews: first, a traditional Euro-American belief that "natural resources" must be extracted to support commercial enterprise and enhance economic productivity; and second, an emerging ethic of restraint toward the environment, emphasizing that our remaining wild places should be used in ways that protect their inherent richness. Especially over the past few years, Sitka's people have struggled with these divergent philosophies and searched for common ground between them.

For me, this is not simply a matter of intellectual interest; it's an immediate, practical concern that dominates my everyday life. Although I work as a nature writer, I devote as much time these days to conservation activism. I belong to national environmental organizations that bring tremendous power and influence to bear on a wide range of issues that concern me; but here on the home grounds, where my body and soul are anchored, I need more direct, hands-on involvement. So I volunteer for the Sitka Conservation Society--a vigorously engaged, tightly organized, and highly effective local group that has worked for three decades to protect Tongass rainforests.

Three years ago the Conservation Society decided to staff an office, then developed a Geographic Information System (GIS) facility to compile forest data and create issue-oriented maps. The office is a busy hive of activities bringing together people who are both activists and friends. On a given day, they might study Environmental Impact Statements and other documents related to Forest Service logging plans; prepare written comments on wilderness areas or dozens of other Tongass management issues; meet with local, regional, or national government officials; sponsor a public education program on natural history or conservation; discuss strategy and collaboration with regional environmental groups; or work on a wide array of other issues, such as trail development plans, helicopter tourism, or toxic waste cleanup at the pulp mill site.

Sitka conservationists, like their compatriots elsewhere in southeastern Alaska, look at environmental issues from a distinctly rural perspective. They're likely to hunt, fish, gather wild plants, cut trees for firewood or housebuilding, and grow some of their own food; they live around commercial fishing, traditional subsistence, and logging. These experiences encourage an awareness that human beings are animals, and that humans--like all other animals--must sustain themselves by using the environment. This is true whether people live in the city or the country, whether they harvest their own food or delegate the responsibility to someone else, whether they recognize their connections to the earth or overlook these basic realities.

The land and waters are not just scenery to be admired from afar, but the very stuff we humans are made from, the source of our biological existence, the crux of our personal ecology. In other words, every living American is a land user. And virtually all of the American land is being used--in one way or another--for human purposes. (It's worth remembering that even the most stringently protected parks and natural preserves are dedicated to specific and often very intensive uses.)

Living in close contact with the surroundings, rural and small-town folks are perhaps more likely than urbanites to think about people who grow the crops that become their groceries, who raise the animals or catch the fish they eat, who cut the trees that become their lumber and paper. In my own life, I am reminded that forests provided hundreds of things I use every day, including the roof that shelters me, the chair I sit on, the desk at which I work, and the paper these words are written on. So I cannot argue against loggers working their trade in the woods. What I protest are logging methods that decimate the forest community, imperil plant and animal species, and undermine the timber industry's own future.

Similarly, Tongass conservationists have not asked the Forest Service to end all logging, but to apply responsible logging practices. They have opposed large-scale, taxpayer-subsidized clearcutting of old-growth rainforest and shipping of logs to faraway places for processing; but they've supported selective cutting at reduced levels that allow the forest ecosystem to continue functioning and maintain its full biological diversity. They have also advocated for small, local businesses that make finished wood products, bringing the greatest income to communities for every felled tree.

Nevertheless, debates over Tongass logging have seriously tested Sitka's tranquillity. At times, people seem unalterably polarized over the issue, but at other times they've come together in search of compromise. During periods of stress and divisiveness, I yearn to hide from the fracas, yet I'm incapable of standing aside when logging jeopardizes the forest and the lifeway it sustains. I once had a home in the village of Tenakee Springs, fifty air miles from Sitka on a blue-water inlet surrounded by pristine Tongass wildlands. Then clearcutting began, and through my front window I saw the forest stripped from nearby mountainsides, leaving barren scablands where I had hiked and hunted, where I had watched bears and deer and eagles, where I had reveled in the tranquillity of unfettered wildness.

I vividly remember the first time I stood in one of those clearcuts, struggling to comprehend how a human society would countenance such a rampage against its own environment. My activism didn't begin with magazine articles, television documentaries, scientific studies, or political discourses--it began that day in the clearcut.

I've briefly mentioned another aspect of environmental advocacy in Sitka, not directly related to forests or wildlife or pollution, yet just as important. Before taking a position or course of action, conservationists must gauge how it will affect community sensibilities. To maintain harmony, it's essential that activists respect their neighbors' beliefs and values, support their right to earn a living, and recognize their concerns about economic stability. Environmental interests are often best served by thoughtful compromise rather than inflexibility, striving to make conservation viewpoints inclusive and acceptable to as many people as possible.

As a visible spokesperson for conservation in the divided community of Sitka, I sometimes feel self-conscious or critically judged. And yet, there's an atmosphere of kindness and civility here, a willingness to put character above politics, a commitment to freedom of expression, and a sense that our shared love for Sitka matters more than our disagreements about what's best for the town. These things make me profoundly grateful to live here.

I'm relieved when a neighbor teases me about the "tree huggers," adding with a gentle smile that our differences mean little against the value of friendship. I once came across a couple of guys--both pulp mill workers--adrift in their skiff on a bay several miles from Sitka, and after we failed to get their engine running I towed them back to town. There's no question that they would have done the same for me, even if they knew how often I have fought against their employer on forestry and pollution issues. When the chips are down, basic humanity always seems to prevail.

At the grocery store recently, I got to talking with a genial old-timer about northern Alaska, where we'd both spent time. Before we parted he shook my hand, insisted that I drop by his place to visit, and introduced himself. Only then did I realize that this was one of Sitka's most caustic antagonists toward conservation. I spared him the burden of my own affiliations, figuring to tell him after we've enjoyed each other's company a bit more.

Years ago, I lived near a wonderful character--a man in his sixties, as thick and tough as a stump, who had retired after decades as a southeastern Alaska logger. We had a wonderful friendship, unscathed by conflicts or disagreements, partly because I never spoke a word in his presence about clearcutting. In fact, I enjoyed hearing his favorite declaration on the subject: "I don't see why people complain about logging. Far as I'm concerned, you just cut 'em down and let 'em grow back again." But the last time I saw him, after the forests around his village home were extensively clearcut, he said, "I was a logger my whole life, but you know, they can't just keep cutting it all down."

Not surprisingly, Sitkans include some of the most outdoors-oriented people you could find anywhere. Because there are few roads or trails, travel is primarily by boat along the outer coast and in hundreds of miles of sheltered straits, sound, bays, and coves. Usually, local folks are not just sightseeing and exploring, but also harvesting their own food--working within their environment rather than simply looking at it. Also, Sitkans tend to develop strong personal connections with particular places that they visit frequently, get to know in detail, and often use for subsistence activities.

Nita and I have such a place--an island that has become the counterpoint of our lives--where together we hunt, fish, hike, and camp; where we sit by the open fire cooking venison, salmon, or fresh-caught halibut; and where we often spend time with friends, surrounded by a special peace and loveliness. Here we once came upon a brown bear sow with her three cubs, so busy scavenging along the beach that they never noticed us; we drifted in our skiff while a pod of killer whales slid past almost within touching distance; we spent an hour within a few yards of two deer as they browsed in the shelter of enormous spruce and hemlock trees. Back at home, we take something of the island into ourselves each time we sit down to a venison dinner: an elemental, organic act that binds our human hearts and our animal bodies to the place we love.

This island is also part of the Tongass. And when the Forest Service proposes to log parts of it--as we expect soon--people like Nita and I will appeal on the island's behalf. In the same way, many other localities around Sitka have their own constituencies: places like Kanga Bay, Taigud Islands, the Pyramids, Aleutkina Bay, No-Thoroughfare Bay, Silver Point, Three-Entrance Bay, Deep Inlet, Mount Verstovia, Nakwasina Passage, Krestof Island, Lisianski Peninsula, Partofshikof Island, Sukoi Inlet, Crater Ridge, Sinitsin Cove, Kalinin Bay, Annahootz Peak, Kakui Narrows, Peril Strait, Deadman Reach.

These places resonate in our community's collective heart; they represent something essential to people who depend on them for physical and spiritual nourishment. In fact, local residents tend to think of the Tongass not as one expansive entity, but as a myriad of special places, each endowed with unique qualities of beauty, richness, and history. From this perspective, clearcut areas are not simply damaged fragments of the Tongass National Forest, but lost, ruined places, like neighborhoods whose inhabitants have been tragically obliterated.

Perhaps the most important of these special places are fjord-like bays cleaved deeply into the land, their surrounding mountainsides and tributary valleys covered with great sweeps of forest, their watershed streams crowded bank-to-bank with fish in spawning season. This luxuriant habitat supports a diversity of wildlife--brown bear, black bear, Alexander Archipelago wolf, Sitka black-tailed deer, river otter, marten, bald eagle, hermit thrush, marbled murrelet, Queen Charlotte goshawk, and countless other species. Here we find the oldest, largest stands of trees, which are not only most important for wildlife but also most desired by the timber industry. And yet these richest stands--many of which have already been clearcut--comprise less than ten percent of the Tongass, while the remaining ninety percent is dominated by smaller trees, bogs, high elevation thickets, tundra, glacier, and rock.

Among the places targeted for imminent logging are two exquisitely beautiful and heavily forested bays. The largest is Ushk Bay, resembling a classic Norwegian fjord, riven five miles deep among showy mountains that lean hard against the sky and reflect in mirror-calm waters. A few miles to the south is Poison Cove, cupped between gentler slopes, named to commemorate the deaths two centuries ago of Aleut natives after they ate poisonous shellfish. Both of these bays have lovely headwater streams flowing through ancient coniferous forests and broad estuary meadows where black-tailed deer browse tender grass and brown bears emerge at dusk to fish for salmon.

Chainsaws would already blare in Ushk Bay and Poison Cove were it not for a lawsuit by the Sitka Conservation Society and other interested parties, and the determined resistance of people like Larry Trani--a retired schoolteacher, commercial diver, and outdoorsman whose passion for these two places is something to behold. "I might compromise about certain things in this world," says Trani, "but I won't give up on Ushk Bay and Poison Cove, not without a helluva fight."

Like many Sitkans, Trani wasn't publicly active in conservation until the Forest Service targeted his favorite places. Then he became the nucleus of an informal group called Friends of Southeast's Future, which attracted a wide assortment of local people who opposed further industrial-scale logging around the community. Membership in "Friends" overlaps that of the Sitka Conservation Society, bringing volunteers with long-term commitment, experience, and technical expertise. Collaboration between these groups led to a pair of ballot initiatives opposed to clearcutting in the Sitka area, and while the measures failed by slim margins, the selection process helped to educate residents about logging practices and established forest conservation as a mainstream political issue--a major shift in a town formerly dominated by timber interests.

But even if conservationists succeed in changing people's attitudes here in Sitka, is anything really gained? I say, unequivocally, yes. The Sitka Conservation Society's achievements show that small groups of people, even situated far off the main road, can accomplish a lot if they work hard enough and long enough, exercise responsibility and intelligence, and don't underestimate their capacities. It takes more than philosophizing, cogitating, procrastinating, or complaining: If we care for the places in which we live, we have to stand up from our chairs, get busy, and make ourselves heard.

For me, environmental activism is a way to give something back in return for what I have received from the Tongass, and the Sitka Conservation Society is a collective voice to which I can add my own. This saves me from the despair of watching helplessly as the places, the forest, and the creatures I love are threatened. And it strengthens my grasp on the hope I find whenever I hike or hunt or fish on the home terrain; whenever I watch a black-tailed deer in the muskeg or stand by a river swarming with fish or listen to a varied thrush at dawn. This sense of hope renews my commitment to help protect the forest; it allows me to imagine a community that will someday hold conservation as a vital and cherished principle; it binds me together with the growing congeries of people who care deeply about the fate of the Tongass; and it gives me faith in the goodness of my fellow townspeople.

Don Muller is a conservation activist, co-owner of a Sitka bookstore, and former pulp mill worker. Some years ago, he and several others chained themselves to a dock at the mill, in a nonviolent protest against pollution and clearcutting, which resulted in arrests and fines for trespassing. A group of mill employees responded several days later with a peaceful, sign-carrying demonstration outside the bookstore, and three of the protesters used Muller's own strategy--chaining themselves to the front door so it couldn't be closed or locked. As the long, chilly day unfolded, Muller talked with the group, asked if they would like refreshments, and brought them coffee from a nearby shop. Instead of closing at the normal hour, Muller kept his store open until the protesters unchained themselves and left. One group had made a statement about jobs; another had made a statement about forests; and together they had made an eloquent statement about civility.

Richard Nelson grew up in Wisconsin and learned about the natural world while living with Inpiaq Eskimos, Gwich'in Indians, and Koyukon Indians in northern Alaska. He is the author of The Island Within and Make Prayers to the Raven. His newest book, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America (Alfred A. Knopf), explores the complex relationships between people and deer.

If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.

This essay was published in the Summer 1997 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at

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