The US Forest Service announced today that they will be publishing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Alaska Roadless Rule in Federal Register this week. The US Forest Service press release announced that the preferred action of the Forest Service at this time is A FULL EXEMPTION. This means that all designated Roadless areas in the Tongass currently protected by the Roadless Rule, would lose those protections and once again be threatened by roadbuilding and clearcut logging.
From the USFS Press Release:
“The (preferred) alternative would remove all 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless acres and would convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands…This is specific to the Tongass National Forest.”
Here are just a few reasons why the preferred action of the USFS is unacceptable for the future of the Tongass.
The Tongass, known as America’s Climate Forest, is the largest carbon sink of all of the national forests in the United States.
The Tongass is a globally significant refuge for healthily functioning coastal rainforest ecosystems; home to bears, wolves, deer, birds, and salmon.
Logging the Tongass is costing taxpayers a colossal amount of money. Tax Payers for Common Sense have recently reported that $600 million federal dollars have been lost to Tongass logging since 1999.
Millions of wild salmon spawn in the Tongass. Every year commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska harvest 49 million wild salmon that were spawned in the streams and rivers of the Tongass, and the rest return to the forest to reproduce and nourish wild animals and massive trees.
The ONLY common sense alternative is the NO ACTION alternative. Leave the Roadless Rule in place on the Tongass.
Make your voice heard! Share your comment through Southeast Alaska Conservation Council OR comment directly to the USFS through the information shared at the bottom of their press release.
Even though Alaska’s political delegation is willing to turn their backs on the people of Southeast Alaska in favor of supporting an industry that makes up less than 1% of the regional economy, there is widespread support for the Roadless Rule.
When the USFS first opened up a scoping period for their proposed ‘Alaska specific’ change to the Roadless Rule in 2018, over 90 percent of the 143,900 formal comments received by the US Forest Service were in support of taking no action to change the Roadless Rule. Additionally, Ketchikan Indian Community, Organized Village of Saxman, Craig Tribal Association, and Organized Village of Kake have all passed resolutions to express similar sentiments.
WE MUST STOP SENDING OUR ANCIENT FORESTS OVERSEAS.
The photo below is a shot from our May 2019 expedition, we passed this cargo ship on the west side of Prince of Wales as it loaded its holds full of ancient forest. As we sailed around my home island bearing witness to Roadless Areas, this ship was bound for Japan.
This morning, the Juneau Empire published a letter that I wrote in response to Lisa Murkowski’s recent Washington Post op-ed. In my letter, I do my best to question why Lisa Murkowski consistently sides with industrial interests while ignoring the needs of local economies and lifestyles that are are inextricably linked to the intact old-growth systems of the Tongass National Forest. Check out the letter here.
Terry Tempest Williams has a definition of groundtruthing that I love:
GROUNDTRUTHING: WALKING THE GROUND TO SEE FOR ONESELF IF WHAT HAS BEEN TOLD IS TRUE
This resonates for me because ground-truthing and Last Stands has always felt like an intensely personal project. Even though I try to stay engaged on Tongass issues, being a vocal advocate and doing things like writing letters to the editor, doesn’t come easily for me. I grew up in Southeast Alaska in the midst of the ‘timber wars’, and back then there was a lot of hate, emotion, and righteousness. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when Trump was elected and I realized the scale of loss of wildlands that we faced as a nation, that I felt compelled to get involved with what was happening in my home region.
When I started the Last Stands project, it was because I was uncertain of the right way to engage, and I wanted to look to the land for a sense of direction. Arguments for conservation felt calcified by years of repetition, and I felt nervous to speak for anything confidently before I could see for myself what was true.
This project has given me courage to speak for the Tongass. Listening to the land isn’t some woo-woo thing, it’s just about taking the time to notice things. What I have seen in the last couple of years has compelled me to speak. I don’t think enough managers or politicians understand how dead the land feels when it’s recovering from clearcut logging. The image below is of ‘stem exclusion’ forest. It’s what happens when trees of a single age class grow back on a large area of land; they choke each other out and block almost all of the light from reaching the understory. This land will feel like a deadzone for 100 years or more.
We cannot smother the vitality of the Tongass when we need it the most. The Tongass is the largest carbon sink the US National Forest System, it is breathing for us, sequestering carbon, and offering a refuge for wild animals and those humans who need wild places to feel connected and whole.
Update on October 16th: the public comment period for the Alaska Roadless Rule has been opened. Please take action here.
The Last Stands team set out in May 2019 aboard my 38-foot sailboat, the Murrelet. The boat was loaded with camera gear, kayaks, and a makeshift hammock filled with enough citrus to ward off scurvy over the next month of sailing, bushwhacking, and cramped quarters.
We came together as a hodgepodge group of young people: I’m a commercial fisherman and activist, Mara’s a scientific illustrator (who was still thawing out after a research season in the Arctic), Gleb is a freelance videographer, and Colin runs a media production company. Our final crewmate, Natalie, joined us later on in the trip; she’s recently taken the role of Executive Director at Audubon Alaska, and so her schedule is a little less amenable to the vagaries of ocean travel.
The rest of us were feeling lucky that we were able to disconnect from technology and responsibility for a month to explore wild places in the Tongass. That said, it was a colossal effort to get ready for a month-long voyage. I worked on my boat almost every day for the month leading up to our departure, and spent thousands rebuilding my anchor winch and ordering parts from the UK for my obsolete 2-cylinder engine.
Finally, the boat was ready (enough), and our team met up on the north end of Prince of Wales with a fairly simple goal. With the Roadless Rule under attack, the Tongass is more threatened than it’s been for most of my lifetime; 9 million of acres of the Tongass may lose the protection if the rule is rescinded for the Tongass. Our team came together to circumnavigate Prince of Wales Island from my sailboat, and explore on foot the wild places that are once again threatened by clearcut logging.
Prince of Wales is an obvious choice for this groundtruthing adventure. It’s the largest island in the archipelago that is the Tongass, it’s where I grew up, and it’s also the last stronghold of the Alaskan timber industry. We all agreed that when we returned from our voyage, we would share our findings with the public - the public who hold the Tongass common as a gift and privilege of citizenship - and we hoped that through writing, botanical illustration, film and other media, this voyage might help more people feel that the future of the Tongass warrants careful consideration.
Over the next month we completed our circumnavigation of Prince of Wales - from limestone cliffs in Calder Bay, the peaceful forests encircling Sarkar Lakes, to the humpback whales feeding on salmon fry in Kendrick Bay - we were all continually amazed by the island’s wildlife and rugged beauty. It’s absurd that the US Forest Service continues to sacrifice these places at the cost to American taxpayers, for the benefit of very few.
It seems that many educated people in my generation in North America are fairly transient, moving from city to city, and taking advantage of the plethora of opportunity that’s available to us. Sometimes I wonder if our collective inability to ‘settle down’ is about more than our privilege, perhaps it has something to do with the painful realities that we must face if we’re going to learn how to live in a place. Climate change is aggravating existing environmental issues faster than we can comprehend. It’s hard to love a place when it’s hurting, it takes courage and commitment.
Visiting Roadless Areas on Prince of Wales, while also bearing witness to the impact of logging - there are over 2,500 miles of logging roads on an island that’s only 135 miles long - was a sometimes joyous, sometimes painful experience. At the end, we were all somewhat overwhelmed by what it meant to have shared this experience, and to move forward with a shared commitment to this place. The Tongass is a forest that’s literally breathing for us and caring for our future--it’s the most valuable carbon sink in our national forest system.
There are so many facts to memorize about why we need to take care of and fight for this one precious earth we live on, and it’s easy to continually turn to them to justify the need for conservation. But we need stories to explain the urgency of change, to keep us going when advocacy work is long and feels futile. We can seek out these stories, but we should be prepared for them to be more complicated than we anticipate.
In the next few months, as the Roadless issue continues to heat up, I plan to share more specific reflections from our voyage, but for now I will just share a few basic takeaways. These are realities that our crew have personal connections to, and they each deserve their own post. But for now, here are a few reflections:
It’s too simplistic to focus conservation efforts on places that are objectively pristine. After a couple years of leading these groundtruthing projects, and miles of bushwhacking, I feel confident in saying that wildlife sign is often concentrated in the areas that have just barely escaped clearcut logging. They may not offer scenic vistas, but when you’re on the ground you recognize that the old-growth adjacent to past logging is critically important to deer, bears, wolves, martens and other critters. Habitat corridors and refuge areas are essential to protect; especially when you consider that the Tongass is an island rainforest and wildlife aren’t necessarily able to swim far enough to find escape on other islands
Private landholders, like Sealaska Corp are clearcutting lands on a massive scale even as logging on federal lands has slowed. The most massive active clearcuts on Prince of Wales right now are Sealaska cuts. Unless you’re a shareholder of a corporation like Sealaska, there’s not much to do or say about this, but it IS important when advocating for public lands to draw attention to how logging from private corporations is contributing to cumulative impact. One of the clearcuts that we anchored near in McKenzie Inlet was so sprawling that the drone Colin launched couldn’t get high enough to include the entire cut in the frame. There’s a roadless area just across the inlet from this massive cut, this might not be a priority area for some conservationists, but if it’s sacrificed the entire south side of Skowl Arm could be clearcut. The US Forest Service is supposed to take cumulative impact into account, but they don’t always do a great job of it.
Huge ships are taking old-growth trees to Asia. While sailing down the west side of Prince of Wales, we bumped into the Key West, a colossal transport ship that was carrying a load of old-growth spruce, cedar, and hemlock to Nagoya Japan. Based on gps tracking, it made it to Japan in the time that it took us to complete our circumnavigation. Since our voyage, our team has tracked this ship and watched it return to Prince of Wales to load up once again.
Since the Last Stands voyage, I’ve been out of cell range commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, but as we anticipate Roadless Rule Draft Environmental Statement from US Forest Service our team is working to try to bring our story to the public. As citizens of a democracy, in a country with vast public lands held in common between all of us, groundtruthing is a way to bring a human (non expert) perspective to the table. We’ve spent time on the frontlines of the Tongass timber wars, and we believe that our voices as young people are important.
And perhaps it’s the ‘nonexpert’ voices that are the most important in this conversation, because often the people who are making decisions in offices in Washington DC, or even in local US Forest Service, haven’t actually spent time in the forests. When you groundtruth, you’re putting the assumptions of land-mangers to the test.
Prince of Wales is a fascinating place to explore; like many other islands in the Southern Tongass, it’s been hit hard by clearcut logging, but I’m starting to think that adventure in the Anthropocene is about grappling with human impact without letting it blind us to the beauty and value that is present, alive, and tenacious.
I no longer want to say that “this place should be saved because it’s pristine”, instead, I will say “this place must be allowed to continue to exist, because it’s essential”. Essential to regulating our climate, wildlife, and to the people who have depended on and celebrated the abundance of this place for thousands of years.
How do you move through a place that is roadless, shaped by countless versions of the Alaskan rainforest itself: fallen giants, steep set stream beds, and soggy muskegs? What kind of steps do you take in a clear cut, a landscape of instant destruction, the chaos of logs crisscrossed many stories high, unstable and sinking into the mud? What about a young dense forest, dark, sharp and brittle branches holding you back at every step? How do your movements and therefore your body change based on these shifting environments?
Walking is a creative act, a place to express yourself through steps and respond to the messages inside the landscape. You cannot record it and play it back. Like breathing it is hard to appreciate until it’s too late.
On our journey this was by far the most challenging experience to capture on camera. Elsa and Mara call it ground truthing: bearing witness to a landscape. Being in a place, listening, directly experiencing places we cannot easily access. Our technology felt clunky and awkward but I’m grateful for our images none the less. Elsa, Mara, and Natalie moved hundreds of miles like this getting to know the place intimately. Their movements were a language that impacted the forest and reciprocally the forest marked their bodies. The forest remembers through broken spruce branches, footprints in the mosses, a rock rolling down a steep ravine. They remember in their muscles, in a scrape turned to scar, in an ache, ultimately translated all into the language to protect these sacred places.
Words and images by: Gleb Mikhalev
On the final day of my trip with Elsa and Mara for Last Stands in 2017, we were sitting under ancient red cedars on the edge of the Old Tuxekan village site after following wolf tracks along the beach. We collected golden chanterelles for our ramen lunches, and ate beach greens while we waited for the boat to pick us up. I felt like the adventure could not be over yet-we had too much left to do. We talked about awareness campaigns in Washington, D.C., media coverage in print and film. I returned to Montana with a list of ways to champion the ground truthed realities of the Tongass in new ways. So, after the school year was complete, I packed my bags, left Montana, and came north, back to Alaska, the Tongass, and home. I spent the next two months tracking the Alexander Archipelago wolf as part of a long-term study to understand the diet and home ranges of these island carnivores. Once again, I found myself crawling through alder, devil’s club, and sometimes under the canopy of cedars.
At times, wolves roamed so frequently along the same path that I could follow their trail as I circumnavigated an entire island. We learned new lessons from them-wolves eat sea otters in southeast Alaska, but they also eat mountain goats. They travel up to 30 miles in one day from ocean to glacier and back again, searching for food and denning sites. This is beautiful work-biological investigation in its purest form. I lived in a cabin and my only job was to understand wolves in the rainforest. I watched fall become winter with a simple rhythm of waking with sandhill cranes, walking in wolf tracks, and saying goodnight to resident moose and their calves as they contemplated the coming change in seasons.
I was also contemplating change as the Tongass transitioned around me. The land transfer bill that led to our walking protest across Taan Island had been left to gather dust, but threats to the Tongass increased. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was pushing the state of Alaska to rescind protections for roadless areas on the Tongass. At the same time, she was crafting legislation to transfer additional lands from public ownership to private trust through alternative mechanisms. The largest timber sale in 25 years was being fast-tracked by the Forest Service on Taan Island, through some of the very last stands we had ground truthed. State officials and the Alaska Congressional delegation were driving an incorrect narrative of timber values on the Tongass. The public was left out of every decision. I could not watch this happen from the comfort of an academic position, or from the quiet of a cabin in a forest. The power of education lies in its application to real world actions. Actions lead to learning, which can lead to change.
Fast forward to spring 2019. As I prepare to join Elsa and Mara on the boat for another transformational ground trothing adventure, I am also being humbled every day by my new role as the executive director for Audubon Alaska. As I write this, I am flying back to Alaska from a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with members of Congress about our national rainforest, the Tongass. I carried with me the photos, stories, and drawings from our Last Stands adventure. I also carried the promise that I will continue to strengthen my voice for our last stands, to crawl on my belly through these places that teach humility, empathy, community, and dialogue, in the age of increasing disconnect and division. I welcome everyone to come with us on this journey.
“Our public lands - whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie - make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.”
- Terry Tempest Williams
I spent my tenth birthday on an Amtrak train traveling across the country with my family. We were headed to Washington DC to lobby for the inclusion of the Tongass National Forest in the Roadless Rule. It was the first time I had been to the East Coast, and one of the first times I’d ever left Southeast Alaska.
I was a ‘bush’ kid, - meaning that I grew up in the woods, and was more comfortable hauling firewood and cleaning salmon than combing my hair and putting on dress shoes. In DC, I felt a bit like a messenger from an alien planet, carrying word of expansive wild places, clean flowing creeks, rowdy salmon and bears bigger than secret service SUVs.
Nineteen years later, I returned to Washington DC to once again lobby for the Roadless Rule. I made the journey with a group of Southeast Alaskans to drum up support for legislation recently introduced by Senator Maria Cantrell and Representative Gallego, the legislation would permanently protect nearly 60 million acres of wild public forests by making the Roadless Rule permanent law.
It’s easy for me to advocate for the Tongass, because it’s so simple. A big part of the equation for me is salmon. I’ve fished for salmon every summer of my life. Some of the most foundational summers of my adult life were spent trolling solo in Southeast Alaska, swinging fat silver salmon aboard my little boat and exploring the remote anchorages along the hundreds of miles of rainforest coastline.
Salmon streams are the arteries of the Tongass, and as a fisherman it’s obvious to me that we need watershed scale protections for salmon habitat. This is especially important in an era of climate change, the resilience of wild stocks of salmon is dependent on all of the salmon streams that run through the Tongass islands, and the Roadless Rule is one of the best protections we have for those watersheds.
Language from Cantwell’s press release: “The Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2019 would codify the 2001 Roadless Rule, which limits costly roadbuilding and destructive logging on roadless landscapes across the National Forest System in order to protect hunting and fishing opportunities, provide critical habitat for 1,600 threatened or endangered species, lessen wildland fire risk, and supply clean drinking water to millions of Americans in 39 states and more than 350 communities across the United States.”
Most people in Southeast Alaska are in favor of the Roadless Rule; and we turned out strong during the scoping period for the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to the Roadless Rule. The rule is working well for Southeast Alaskans, and making it law would relieve our communities from having to continually rehash this issue whenever a pro-development administration decides to try to revitalize the long dead Southeast Alaskan timber industry.
In just a couple weeks the Last Stands team will be on Prince of Wales, exploring designated roadless areas on my home island. Unroaded forest on Prince of Wales provides habitat and wildlife corridors on an island that’s ecologically fragile after decades of clearcut logging, the Roadless Rule is a lifeline for Prince of Wales. We’re excited to share this place with you. Please follow along!
Scientific Illustrator, Mara Menahan, follows the wild things, from the Tongass to the Sierras of the Baja Peninsula:
Mara joins the Last Stands team as an artist working in the tradition of natural history illustration. Currently she is painting the variations of light and color on the Greenland ice sheet while working seasonally at Summit Station, a National Science Foundation research camp. Mara will travel to the Tongass this spring, direct from Greenland.
After chasing Elsa through the rainforest in late summer of 2017, I followed the rufous hummingbirds and humpback whales from Alaska down to the opposite end of their ranges to find them feasting on agave nectar in the Sierras of the Baja peninsula and calving in the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez. Over the past two winters, I have ridden over 2,000 miles of Baja's backcountry tracks and roads, traversing the length of the Mexican peninsula by bicycle while painting the region’s endemic flora and fragile desert landscape (a sneak peek of this ongoing illustration project can be viewed here). Seeing these species so far away from where I first saw them in Alaska shows how changes in a remote northern archipelago will send shockwaves along the Pacific coast into Mexico and beyond.
Travelers and migrating animals have a privileged view of the warp in the weave of earth, sea and sky. When John Steinbeck joined his naturalist friend Ed Rickets on a boat journey along the coastlines of the Baja peninsula, he wrote that, “. . . all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”
That is some advice I can follow. Returning to the cold waters of Southeast Alaska this spring will be one wild reunion.
The Last Stands project was born in 2017 as a rugged, woman-led expedition through threatened lands in the Tongass National Forest. We will continue our ground-truthing efforts in 2019 in response to proposed changes to the Roadless Rule.
BACKGROUND ON THE TONGASS RAINFOREST
The 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is the largest temperate rainforest in the world. The Tongass covers more than 1,000 islands and is cradled between the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the highest coastal mountain range in the world. This rainforest is a national treasure, but it's threatened by an export logging industry which continues to send barge-loads of old-growth trees to Asia. In an era of climate change there's even deeper motive for protecting these lands: the Tongass currently sequesters 8% of the US’s carbon emissions.
In 2001, 9-million acres of the Tongass were protected by the Roadless Rule; a federal policy that prohibits road building and logging in unroaded National Forest. The unfragmented forest protected by the rule is integral for salmon, wildlife, and the cultural resilience of rural communities.
In 2018, the USFS was directed by the Trump Administration to draft an ‘Alaska specific’ Roadless Rule in an effort to open up protected lands to clearcut logging. The proposed changes to the Roadless Rule have met intense opposition in the region; but the issue hasn't gained national attention. The Last Stands ground-truthing expedition aims to place the Tongass alongside the opening of Bears Ears and the Arctic Refuge, as one of the most significant potential losses of wild lands during the Trump presidency.
Getting on the Ground
Sail circumnavigation of Prince of Wales Island to access inventoried roadless areas.
Ground-truth roadless areas by foot and packraft.
Tell the story of roadless rainforest through published writings, scientific illustrations, social media, and a film production.
Encourage public engagement with the national comment period for the draft 'Alaska specific' Roadless Rule.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The nature poet Mary Oliver said of her work, “Attention without feeling I’ve come to learn, is only a report.” Without context, these images might read as simple, pretty representations of things I saw during our month of bushwhacking. They are certainly that—but they are also meditations on the gradual destruction of the temperate rainforests of SE Alaska.
Working slowly and making portraits of things the old-fashioned way by hand (with pen and pencil, paintbrush and paper) I’ve come to see this place not as an endless expanse of trees in a monolithic shade of green, but a tapestry of karst topography, beaches, salmon streams, muskegs, and wetlands stitched together by the temperate rainforest.
The images from my field journal reflect this incredible diversity: a pine marten skull found in the understory of a cedar grove, seaweeds collected on the shore, gentian growing up through the sphagnum moss.
They also tell the story of how we traveled through this landscape—slowly and deliberately, and sometimes on our hands and knees in awe of small and precious things.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Know the land, fight for the land, but stay true to this lucid advice from Edward Abbey.
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.
Elsa Sebastian is back in Sitka after a month trekking through endangered lands on her home island of Prince of Wales. Elsa's Last Stands project is a response to the threat of a 2 million acre Tongass land giveaway--Don Young's most recent attempt to encourage reckless timber development in Southeast Alaska.
To better understand the stakes of this potential land transfer, Elsa and fellow adventurers spent over a month in the backcountry of Prince of Wales, where they experienced the ecological history of the island by bushwhacking through the lands selected to be transferred.
Join Elsa at the Island Institute this Friday for a stories and a slideshow from her summer's adventures.
Following the presentation there will be the opportunity for discussion about Tongass stewardship. How might adventure and groundtruthing help citizens become more powerful advocates for threatened lands?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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".