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

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.  

 

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.