Encounters with Cedar

Cedar trees define Prince of Wales in sweeping freeform strokes that bring softness to the landscape, their branches hanging low to kiss incoming ocean tides, bark soft, roots sprawling and open. Yellow cedar grow throughout Southeast Alaska, but the range of red cedar doesn't extend as far north. Prince of Wales is one of the few islands in Southeast Alaska that is home to both species. 

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Aiken Cove. Sandhill cranes take flight from the beach grass. Their ancient music is in my ears as I follow a well-stomped bear trail into the forest. When I see the pink flagging, sharp comprehension turns quickly to rage for everything that has happened to this island. It takes a moment before I see the tree standing directly behind the focal point of my anger; it's been standing here since before the United States was founded. 

The mark of timber cruisers was everywhere; it seemed that whenever we started coming into big trees we'd either hit a clearcut or flagging. 

Thorne watershed. Shattered trees spread across a recent clearcut. Cedars don't fall cleanly; the straight cut of the chainsaw goes against the nature of the tree. Splinters like bone. Mara and I are silent, lingering, but the light is low, and with few words exchanged we heft our packs and continue to look for a campsite.

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Klawock. Viking mill. Mechanized grasping. The humans stationed at levers are breathing the dust of 500-year-old cedars. This mill represents most of the timber industry on Prince of Wales, and they're milling mostly cedars these days. About half the trees are cut and sent by barge-load to Viking's de facto parent corporation in Washington state, the others are sent round-log across the ocean to Asia.


last trees standing

Cedar trees are the new target on Prince of Wales. They're the last trees standing, but as their market value increase, so does the rate of cut.

 There are still some big beautiful spruce trees between Moira and Chomondeley. 

There are still some big beautiful spruce trees between Moira and Chomondeley. 

First it was spruce.  Much of the spruce on Prince of Wales was cut during the era of the pulp mills, from the 1950s to the early 90s. Spruce grows tall, straight, and in dense stands--easy pickings for the voracious pulp mills. Cedar trees are more sparsely distributed on much of the island, but the areas where they're dense have until now been relatively untouched by the timber industry. 

We experienced this when we hiked from Moira Sound to Cholmondeley Sound.  Moira Sound was the densest cedar that we saw during Last Stands, and also the most intact and wild place we saw (though there was plenty of timber cruiser flagging marking the big trees). After exploring Moira Sound, we hiked north to Cholmondeley. It was a day hike, and as we made our way north we started to encounter exceptionally tall and beautiful spruce trees. Almost as soon as the forest was predominately spruce, we found ourselves in a clearcut. 

Now that most of the spruce are gone from POW, and the market for cedar has improved, the cedar is next the target of the timber industry. 

 Southeast Alaska naturalist Richard Carstensen joined us for the final week of Last Stands. Photo by Lee House

Southeast Alaska naturalist Richard Carstensen joined us for the final week of Last Stands. Photo by Lee House

The loss of ancient beings

My friend Richard Carstensen joined Mara and I for the last leg of our Prince of Wales trek. Richard is one of the best naturalists in Southeast Alaska, and a seriously legit groundtruther (check out his d-rating for bushwhacking in Southeast AK). He's been thinking about cedar trees for years, and has been disturbed by how aggressively they're being targeted on Prince of Wales. He helped me understand a couple of things about cedar: (1) once we cut them, they're not going to grow back, (post clearcut, cedars won't be able to compete), and (2) They're the most ancient trees in Southeast Alaska, and we need to consider their value as longstanding and irreplaceable giants in our forests.

Before he joined us on Prince of Wales - while we were still thrashing about in the backcountry of Moira Sound - Richard emailed us this idea about what it means to cut down ancient cedar: 

"The way I've tried to characterize the magnitude of loss is to ask what we're cutting/exporting not in terms of volume but in terms of the years of tree growth it took to produce these ancient beings. By that metric, we may be hemorrhaging worse right now than during the peak years of volume export in the 50s and 60s."

Unfortunately cedar trees on Prince of Wales will be cut for as long as we continue to prop up a timber industry in Southeast Alaska. The Last Stands team hiked through lands threatened by the 2-million acre public lands giveaway - a transfer that would allow for devastating clearcuts with zero public process - but the same lands are also threatened under current federal management. The USFS is in the midst of developing a 15-year plan for Prince of Wales, and prominently featured in this plan is the extraction of between 170 and 425 million board feet of old-growth in the next 15 years. This means that nearly half of the remaining old-growth on Prince of Wales could be cut by 2033.

For a hard-hitting critique of the Forest Service's plan, check out this incredibly detailed scoping comment from the Alaska Rainforest Defenders

 Two cedar trees and me. Tuxekan, POW

Two cedar trees and me. Tuxekan, POW

A return to Cedar

This is one of the first posts that I've written since spending a month in the backcountry of Prince of Wales. Adventure in a conflicted landscape of home is more emotionally exhausting then I should even attempt to describe in this blog. It's taken time, but I've recently found the energy to return to my notes, recordings, and photographs. 

I've also found my hands working damp fragrant cedar in a weaving course with Haida master weaver Delores Churchill.  I'm making a basket with cedar stripped from trees on Prince of Wales. Red cedar forms the base and structure of the basket, and the more supple yellow cedar is woven around the red.

Old Tuxekan

After Natalie, Mara and I hiked our longest transect - across the island from Karta River to Tuxekan - we were feeling fairly disheartened by human impact on the island. It wasn't just the clearcuts, but the haphazard way that they consumed the landscape. The decades of clearcutting and logging roads followed no natural order, the land felt confused, untended, choked and dark with second-growth and entirely inhospitable to animals (whether they be black bears or humans with backpacks). 

When we did make it to the western shores of Prince of Wales we unexpectedly found ourselves in a special place. The Tlingit village site of Old Tuxekan. Everywhere there were living cedars with distinct features of a long-held relationship to humans. Some trees had been stripped for weaving bark, and others had been investigated by adz for their totem or canoe potential. We all relaxed into a place that seemed relatable, and as we were reminded of how short the history of reckless exploitation on this island has been, we shook the murmur of hopelessness that had dogged us for much of the cross island trek. This island continues to be known as Taan (sealion).

 Living cedar tree, once stripped for bark. 

Living cedar tree, once stripped for bark. 

 Living cedar tree, once explored for canoe or totem potential with adz.

Living cedar tree, once explored for canoe or totem potential with adz.

Before Last Stands...

In my last week of frantic preparations for Last Stands, my dear friend Louise Brady - kik.sadi Tlingit playwright, activist, grandmother, herring protector - emailed me a recording of a poem she was working on. Her words of homecoming and love offered more guidance on my Taan trek than the gps clipped to my belt. There has always been love. The history of greed is short on Taan, the cedar trees remember a time when things were different. 

 Louise Brady

Louise Brady

Farragut Bay & Port Houghton Expedition

The Last Stands project is shared by Southeast Alaskans who are exploring rainforest threatened by massive public lands giveaways and reckless development. Collective adventure. Informed advocacy. 

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Bo and Marja have a homestead in Farragut Bay where they make a living running a small mixed vegetable farm. They have spent decades exploring the Farragut River valley and the mountains, lakes and forests that surround it. Most of their waking moments are spent trying to figure out how to grow bigger turnips but they also work to promote local commercial agriculture throughout Southeast Alaska. This is the story of their groundtruthing adventure through the lands near their farm. See photos of their farm, and hear from Bo here. 

The Farragut river basin is wild to a degree that is exceedingly uncommon. Human impacts are almost nonexistent. There are no roads, there are no trails. This place remains as it has been for millennia. It’s an entire watershed that is completely intact. It’s also a stunningly beautiful place with flat valley bottoms flanked by snow-capped peaks. Where the river joins the ocean, dense forests give way to hundreds of acres of open meadowlands, filled with grasses and wild flowers. There are national parks and monuments less dramatic than this place. Including the Farragut river basin as part of a new state forest, formed with the express and prioritized purpose of logging every forested acre would be extremely shortsighted.

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I have spent decades exploring the Farragut river basin and the peaks that surround it, but have never hiked from Farragut Bay over the hill to Port Houghton and the Sandborn canal. This area has also been earmarked to be part of the new state forest. Inspired by Elsa’s project to hike transects of all the HR 232 parcels on POW island and also by an uncommonly balmy stretch of weather in early August, Marja and I decided to hike our own HR 232 transect. So we stepped out our front door and began our transect!

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The hike began with a tromp across the grassy meadows and soggy bogs of the Farragut river flats, land that is just inches above an extreme high tide. After wading through ¾ of a mile of head-high lady ferns and meadows burdened with grasses thick and heavy enough to depress (very slightly!) the continental plate, we arrived at the familiar moose trail that heads up the hill and goes to an old plane wreck. Some time in the 1970’s a twin engine prop plane on a commercial flight crashed straight into the side of the hill about 1000 vertical feet up from the flats. It’s a grim and sobering place even after 40 some years. A reminder of how suddenly vulnerable we are when our machines fail.

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After the plane wreck, the way levels as the trail disappears and the brush gets denser! Fortunately we find a series of muskegs that link together a relatively clear path most of the way across to Sandborn...most but not ALL the way! At some point the option for speedy muskeg travel disappears, and we find ourselves perched on a broad ridge between two deep canyons with nowhere to go but down into the brushy, dark depths. Usually a Southeast creek is a terrible way to get from point A to point B -- downed trees, brush, devil's club, rocky cliffs, bears, walrus. Most Southeast creeks abound with every conceivable obstacle to foot travel, but not the creek we find ourselves traveling down! It is a clear path of scoured bedrock, the closest thing to a naturally formed gutter either of us has ever seen in Alaska.

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We expect to run into a hundred foot cliff around every bend, but the way is open. What this creek lacks in diverse habitat it makes up for with easy traveling. We marvel at the sun speckled rock walls and the water falls just barely gradual enough to allow easy passage. Have we been transported to the Sierras? After a few miles of rock skipping the creek dumps us out on the shores of the Sandborn Canal and we camp for the night in sight of the lights from a luxury yacht anchored in the canal. Ahh, the juxtaposition of Southeast Alaska...so hard to navigate by land, so easy to get anywhere by water.  Our campsite is in the flat, grassy meadows that surround the upper end of Sandborn Canal.

In the morning we follow the shore towards the terminus of the canal, until the tidal influence diminishes and we are skirting a freshwater creek on a significant bear trail. The creek meanders through the flat meadows forming large, deep, slow water pools. In the first few pools we are impressed by the schools of several hundred pink and chum salmon. The remains of Tlingit fish traps run diagonally across the stream, a whole series of traps with the sticks rotted off just above the stream bed but still very visible and intact. Further upstream the pools get wider, longer and deeper and now they are black with fish, many thousands in each pool. Neither of us has ever seen so many fish in such a small space; this stream is a huge salmon producer.

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Soon the meadows give way to swamps where the creek exits the forest. The traveling suddenly  gets much more difficult. We wade through mucky bogs until the mud oozes up towards the top of our boots. We head back to the stream and into a universe of brush. Every growing thing in this drainage is on steroids, fertilized by the salmon carcasses that lie half eaten everywhere across the forest floor. Devil’s club towers above us forming a dense canopy supported by needle clad pillars. Even though there are bear trails everywhere, the place is still such a dense thicket that we are crawling, ducking and vaulting over and under acres of prickliness. This is the densest brush either of us has encountered in Southeast.

The struggle up the creek continues past countless riffles and pools thick with spawning salmon. The trees that line the creek are huge. We would like to get closer to some of the bigger ones to get a better idea of their diameter, but it’s just too much work to thrash through the brush to their bases. Logs are down everywhere, criss-crossing the creek, making elevated bridges for the bears.  And there are bears everywhere, gorging on salmon. This place is teeming with life.

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This is not a very long creek. The portion that is suitable for salmon habitat is only a few miles, but the sheer quantity of fish using it is unbelievable. Every inch of those few miles is prime...if you are a spawning salmon. Not so much if you evolved on a savanna in Africa, but we manage to thrash our way all the way up to where the creek splits into several small, steep tributaries. We follow one that shoots straight up to the ridge that lies between us and our home in Farragut Bay.  2000’ vertical feet of steep hillside, following a godsend of a moose trail, and we are on top of the ridge surrounded by a swarm of horseflies that knows this might be the last day of the summer that’s warm enough for them to get out and suck someone’s blood. We set up the tent as quickly as possible and jump in, leaving our stinky socks outside draped over the bushes. The horseflies seem pretty happy to pursue the socks in our absence.

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From the top of this ridge we can see a good swath of country and all that’s to be seen is pristine wilderness. From the craggy multiple summits of Grants peak, down to the bay and Frederick Sound, humans don’t seem to exist. Gone are the problems of climate change, overpopulation, pollution and human greed. You simply can’t see them from here. There is however, one small human intrusion on this vast wild landscape….if you look really close, the corner of a Farragut Farm greenhouse pokes out from between the trees way, way down there at the edge of a meadow that is reflecting the infinite shades of green.

Grounds for cheer from Edward Abbey

Know the land, fight for the land, but stay true to this lucid advice from Edward Abbey. 

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Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast...a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that wet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men with their hearts in a safe-deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

Hollis to Craig: Crossing boundaries 

Huddled under tarps, we squeeze ourselves into our two small tents to keep dry.  We have set up camp on a wooden platform overlooking a small waterfall on Rio Roberts creek.  Our camp looks like a contemporary stellar crystal design of colored nylon and parachute chord.  It is our daily woven web we design to keep the rain out while we are backpacking through the rainforest.

 Mara illustrating by candle and headlamp

Mara illustrating by candle and headlamp

This leg of our journey started with a drop off at the Karta River outlet.  Our first day was wet, but trail walking to Salmon Lake cabin made the miles seem fast even with a few areas of blown down trees, stream crossings and three bear encounters.  We had a dry cabin for the evening, where Mara could sketch plants we have seen by candlelight.

 

 Old growth near Rush Peak

Old growth near Rush Peak

Our next day commenced with a morning bushwack over ridges towards Rush Peak.  We scrambled up a high hill into muskegs and ran across a clearcut that was not on our maps, so we re-routed slightly towards a lake.  Our goal was to reach an old logging road that would eventually lead to more developed logging roads and finish at the paved road to Thorne Bay. 

We used this route to illustrate the concept of boundaries and we talked about those boundaries while we hiked: boundaries of landscape and movement.  We hiked from a designated wilderness area since 1990 and representative of older second growth due to fires in the area at the turn of the century.  From there, we walked through a steep cedar forest and into the state land selection lands which largely represented muskeg habitats.  At the clearcut boundaries of the road system, we encountered difficult blow down as a result of the open canopy disturbances caused by large-scale clearcuts.  We walked from no trail to paved road in one day on Prince of Wales island-covering short distances due to overall travel conditions (bushwacking!) but crossing many boundaries and land use designations.  We recognize that the diversity of this matrix would change dramatically if this land was selected and new boundaries were drawn under state ownership.

We finished this leg of the journey with a roadside pick up from our friend Mike, hot showers, great food and great friends and family in Craig.  One of the truly unique aspects of southeast Alaska, very much alive on Prince of Wales island, is the familiarity of instant community that forms around adventurous spirits sharing stories.  

 

Farragut Farm Adventurers share their thoughts on exploring endangered lands

 Anchored in Farragut Bay

Anchored in Farragut Bay

One of my core hopes for the Last Stands project is to develop a network of adventurous Alaskans who are intentional about developing relationships with threatened lands. As individuals we have an opportunity to use adventure to become informed advocates for places that are remote, challenging to access and many kinds of wild. The stories from this project have to the potential to redefine the way we value forested land in the region, and will be ours to share regardless of shortsighted management decisions. 

 My travel buddy Peter Bradley paddling up the slough to Bo & Marja's farm

My travel buddy Peter Bradley paddling up the slough to Bo & Marja's farm

I recently visited Bo and Marja who opperate a vegetable farm north of Petersburg in the remote and expansively beautiful Farragut Bay.  As longtime residents of Farragut Bay, a place threatened by the potential 2-million acre land giveaway, Bo and Marja helped pass the Petersburg Borough's resolution against Don Young's HB 232. Click here for that resolution.

Bo and Marja are still engaged on the issue, and have signed on to the Last Stands adventure to visit some unexplored places near their home that are threatened by the 2-million acre land giveaway. 

Everything about our visit to Farragut Farm was amazing - the paddle up the slough, the freshly harvested baby turnips (delicious!) - but a highlight was hearing Bo's thoughts about adventuring in endangered places and his ideas about the future of his region. My pal Peter Bradley put together a short audio piece from our conversation. It takes years of growing veggies to speak so well for the land, take a listen!

 "When you see someplace for the first time and you know it's threatened, it makes it worry you. Here's this amazing place, but next time I come here it might be completely gone"

 Bo Varsano runs Farragut Farm with his partner Marja Smets

Bo Varsano runs Farragut Farm with his partner Marja Smets

Plan your own adventure in a place threatened by the 2-million acre rainforest carve out. Sign up here, or let's chat. Shoot me an email at tongasslaststands@gmail.com

   

Giving Away Alaska's Rainforest

Senator Murkowski and Representative Don Young have spent their entire political careers trying to prop up Southeast Alaska's  timber industry through government handouts and subsidies.  

In the past several years both Murkowski and Young introduced legislation that would effectively transfer 2-million acres of Tongass National Forest - the last of the best - to the state of Alaska. 

Under Alaska law these lands would be managed solely for timber production. This means:

  • No management for multi-use (hunting, recreation, etc)

  • No opportunity for meaningful public process

  • No limits on the size of clearcuts

  • No consideration of cumulative ecological impact

Currently the State is selecting lands to become part of a State Forest. They're doing this without public process, occasionally releasing maps of possible selections while maintaining the right to change those selections at any moment. 

A Homecoming: Trekking Selections on Prince of Wales

 I've spent every summer of my life on the ocean. Here I am in 2016, fishing my power troller the Lena along the outer coast of Prince of Wales island. 

I've spent every summer of my life on the ocean. Here I am in 2016, fishing my power troller the Lena along the outer coast of Prince of Wales island. 

I was raised on Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska's rainforest archipelago. My home village relies on commercial fishing, and my childhood was shaped by the seasonal rhythms of the commercial fishing lifestyle. In the summer, my family fished for salmon on our wooden troller, and the months would pass by with the roll of the ocean and silver salmon. Sometimes, when the fishing was slow, my mom, brother and I would take time off the boat to camp on the wild islands scattered along the outer coast of Prince of Wales. In the fall, my family returned to our home village on the northern tip of the island, my mom canned salmon, my dad hunted deer, and as a family we'd prepare for a winter that would pass quickly with the busyness of community, learning, and exploring the forests around our home. 

 My favorite Southeast Alaska wildflower. Photo Marissa Wilson. 

My favorite Southeast Alaska wildflower. Photo Marissa Wilson. 

Fishing, forest, and community were the strongest themes of my childhood, but on Prince of Wales Island the conflict around timber development was inescapable. Timber provides jobs, but in my community and family, I was most aware of how the industry and the politics around it degraded the environment and divided communities. Prince of Wales is home to some of the biggest trees and best wildlife habitat in Southeast Alaska, but since the glory days of the logging boom, the island has been exploited as a "sacrifice zone". Heavy logging and taxpayer subsidized infrastructure resulted in devastating clearcuts across the island, and left many decision makers all too willing to carve the remaining old-growth up into disposable parcels of forest. This attitude is neither ecologically nor economically sound. Regional naturalist Richard Carstensen describes the compromised but still immensely productive forests and ecosystems of Prince of Wales as being “hammered gems...roaded and logged watersheds that still serve as engines of regional fish & wildlife productivity”. 

 Under Alaska law there is no limit on the size of a clearcut.

Under Alaska law there is no limit on the size of a clearcut.

This conflict continues today. Even though the timber industry makes up less than 1% of the regional economy, Alaska’s federal delegation prioritizes timber above all other forest uses. Both Senator Murkowski and Representative Young have allied themselves with a recent timber industry effort to transfer 2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest out of federal ownership and to the State of Alaska. The lands would be managed as a timber forest, unlimited by U.S. Forest Service commitment to manage for multiple uses, including hunting and recreation. In the winter of 2017 Young introduced HB 232, if this bill passes then it's possible that 2 million acres of the some of the best remaining habitat in Southeast Alaska could be clearcut without significant public process or meaningful environmental regulation.

One version of the possible state forest selections on Prince of Wales Island. In the summer of 2017 I will hike across every one of these selections. 

I can't wrap my head around why this option is on the table, and I fear that logging of this scale could eliminate the possibility for a healthy and resilient future for my home island. The scale of the State Forest is so large, that I need to advocate against it in the most meaningful way I can imagine. For me, this takes the form of an expedition. In the summer of 2017 I will transect every State Forest selection on Prince of Wales and its outer islands. The hike will carry me through at least 150 miles of forest, and many small communities along the way. This is not a publicity stunt, but rather a journey to attempt to better understand this unique island. Hopefully I will emerge from this experience with a richer understanding of the remaining forest, an acceptance of the impact of past logging, and a better understanding of the many relationships between people and forest. I will be joined by scientists, photographers, journalists, and other media makers, who will enrich the experience with their perspectives and help share the experience with others. Together we will will offer a new narrative for Prince of Wales, and the areas selected for timber production - now just outlines and colors on a map - will be imbued with meaning and life. 

Although I will primarily be hiking the state forest allocations on Prince of Wales, there are many other areas in Southeast Alaska that have also been selected to be part of the state timber forest without any meaningful public input. Other Southeast Alaskans are also planning to transect areas threatened by the potential State Forest, and will create their own stories of place that can be shared alongside the stories of Prince of Wales.  In doing so, I hope we can confront the idea of parceling off huge pieces of habitat, of destroying entire ecosystems by identifying places on the map that can be most readily “sacrificed.” These are not anonymous lands - these are lands with long histories, rich webs of life, and value that extends far beyond "stumpage". 

Sign up to trek a selection near your home.