Underlying Causes of
Deforestation and Forest Degradation

North America

Deforestation in Alaska’s Coastal Rainforest:
Causes and Solutions

by Rick Steiner
University of Alaska, October 1998

This case study will present an overview of the Alaska coastal temperate rainforest - a description of the forest; the history, extent, and causes of deforestation; and proposed solutions. It should be pointed out that this report offers only a very brief overview, and many interesting and pertinent details are omitted. It relies primarily on previously published reports as referenced below, personal experience, and personal communications with individuals intimately involved in coastal forest issues in Alaska.

I. Forest Description -

The Alaska coastal rainforest stretches along a 1000 mile arc of the Gulf of Alaska coast from the southern-most Alaska/Canada border across to the terminus of the forest on Kodiak Island. It is part of the largest temperate rainforest on Earth, which extends on southward to the northern California fog-belt redwoods. As such, the Alaska coastal forest needs to be understood in context with the entire coastal temperate rainforest of which it is an integral part.

The characteristics of coastal temperate rainforests have been described well by many sources, including Alaback and Weigand, 1990; The Rainforests of Home, 1995; America’s Vanishing Rainforests, 1986; and the Alaska Rainforest Atlas, 1993. The four distinguishing features include proximity to oceans, presence of coastal mountains, cool summer temperatures, and high precipitation occurring during all seasons. Temperate rainforests occur along continental margins, in areas with moderate maritime climate with temperatures ranging from 4 - 12 C, receiving at least 80" of rainfall spread over at least 100 days of the year. They generally have cool, wet summers and wind rather than fire is an important disturbance mechanism, particularly in more northerly regions. For the most part, these forests occur within 100 miles of productive, cold-water coasts, and their distribution inland is limited by coastal mountains.

Globally, temperate rainforests are rare - covering about 70 - 100 million acres, only about 2.5% of the area covered by tropical rainforests and about 2.5% of the area covered by other temperate forest types. Temperate rainforests cover only about 1/1000 of Earth’s land surface. Virtually all are found around the Pacific - along the northwest coast of North America, southern Chile, New Zealand, southern Australia, Japan - and a remnant stand in Norway. Historic stands in Ireland, Scotland, France, Yugoslavia, Russia, and Turkey were converted long ago. They are all primarily coniferous, and represent the largest accumulation of organic matter of any ecosystem in the world - from 200 - 1,000 tons of organic matter per acre.

The North American forest, which originally covered over 50 million acres, constitutes over half of the world’s temperate rainforest. It includes about 30 tree species and 250 species of birds and mammals. Without large-scale disturbance such as fire, individual trees can live 1000 years, and grow to over 20 feet in diameter, and 250 feet in height. Alaback and Pojar, 1997 subdivide the North American temperate forest into four distinct biogeographic zones as follows:

  • warm temperate rain forest: from San Francisco to southern Oregon, with mild wet winters and little snow; warm, dry summers; coastal redwoods, cedar, spruce, hemlock.
  • seasonal rainforest: from southern Oregon to central Vancouver Island, with cool to mild winters, dry and cool summers; Sitka spruce and western hemlock.
  • perhumid temperate rainforest: from northern Vancouver Island to southeast Alaska; wetland forests and subalpine meadows; only 1/3 of landscape having dense forests; colder winters with snow common; more summer rain; Sitka spruce, western hemlock, cedar.
  • subpolar rainforest: along the north Gulf of Alaska coast, Prince William Sound, southern Kenai peninsula; distinctly subalpine; only about 12% of landscape forested, remainder is subalpine meadows, muskeg, glaciers; spruce and hemlock, grow smaller and more slowly; 150" precipitation, much of it as snow.

The Alaska section of the North American coastal rainforest (as described by authors referenced above and others) is dominated by western hemlock - Sitka spruce forest, with approximately 73% hemlock and 12% spruce. The rest consists of about 5% western red cedar, 5% Alaska cedar, 4% mountain hemlock, and 1% black cottonwood. This forest covers most of the islands of southeast Alaska and extends in a narrow, discontinuous band along the Gulf coast across to Prince William Sound, the southern edge of the Kenai peninsula, and ends on north Kodiak. It covers approximately 15 million acres, but only about half of this is closed canopy forest, the other half being classified as scrub forest with only scattered trees. There are two main areas in the coastal rainforest - southeast Alaska, and southcentral Alaska.

In southeast Alaska, the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest is about 2/3 rock, ice, muskeg, and scrub forest. Of the 1/3 that is considered commercial forest, half is low volume forest that is seldom economical to log. On the Tongass, only about 600,000 acres - or 4% of the land base - is considered high-volume, low elevation forest. These highest volume forest stands (over 30,000 board feet/acre) that occur at lower elevations along river valleys and along the coastline are the richest fish and wildlife habitat, and the areas most coveted by timber companies. In southcentral Alaska, most of the high-density forest was selected for ownership by Alaska Native Corporations.

With thin, poorly developed soils over bedrock, tree roots are concentrated near the soil surface, predisposing them to windthrow. This contributes many rotting logs to the forest floor, and the forest becomes multi-storied with a wide variety of age classes, and many dead and dying trees. An epiphyte community in the upper canopy, primarily of mosses and lichens, is well developed. A luxuriant fern assemblage is also present.

Water is the lifeblood and shaper of this entire forest ecosystem. Sandwiched between the stormy Gulf of Alaska and the highest coastal mountains in the world (some rising 18,000 feet above sea level, most with mountain tops covered by ice and snow year-round), the coastal forest forms a thin living membrane between sea and ice. As humid air from the gulf climbs up these steep mountain slopes, it drops the hundreds of millions of tons of water each year that characterizes the forest. This water is filtered by the forest, and drains through thousands of creeks and streams as it flows back into the sea.

Physiography and climate collaborate to form an extensive network of streams, stream-side riparian areas, wetlands, peat bogs, and alpine areas - an elegant patchwork of productive habitats for many fish and wildlife species. Rainfall in the coastal forest is so heavy that an extensive lens of low salinity water can be detected flowing above normal marine waters along the Gulf coastal waters across toward Kodiak - in essence, a river on top of the sea.

Linkages between the coastal seas and the forests are very important. The forest provides breeding habitat for many fish and bird species, which in turn contribute nutrients to the forest ecosystem as they return from the sea. The clear water streams provide spawning habitat for millions of wild salmon, Dolly Varden and steelhead trout. Over 100 million salmon can return in one year to these coastal forest streams. These salmon, in turn, provide a primary nutrient source to support the world’s largest populations of brown bears and bald eagles. Salmon are forest animals as much as they are marine animals - they spawn in streams, rivers and lakes in the forest, and the water quality of these spawning areas is utterly dependent on the adjacent forest - the forest provides shade, stream-flow baffles, and prevents erosion and flooding. Fallen trees and other large-woody debris create important pools and riffles in streams. The forest helps maintain water temperature, nutrient balance, flow rate, and proper physical structure of the stream. The entire hydrology of the coastal ecosystem is dependent on the forest. And, terpenes from coastal conifer needles contribute to the productivity of coastal waters.

Other forest dependent species include Sitka black-tailed deer, wolves, black bear, mountain goats, wolverine, lynx, marbled murrelets, harlequin ducks, goshawks, river otters and marten. During winter, tree limbs intercept much of the heavy snow fall, providing deer and other wildlife access to forage, shelter and easier mobility. Standing dead trees provide habitat for many cavity-nesting birds, martens, and many invertebrates. In essence, this is a finely balanced, productive, and unique ecological system.

Recolonization of disturbed areas goes through fairly predictable cycles, including a seedling/sapling stage in the first 25 years after disturbance; a dense, closed forest and understory exclusion stage from 25 - 150 years after disturbance during which few seedlings can take hold; the mature even-aged forest understory reinitiation stage, from 150 - 250 years; and then a return to a condition approximating the pre-existing old-growth forest at somewhere from 250 - 400 years. It should be pointed out though, that since extensive clearcutting has only been used for less than 100 years, recolonization rates are speculative. By comparison, the Forest Service considers a timber rotation period to be only 100 years in the southeast Alaska coastal forest. Thus, with such short timber rotation periods, what had been productive fish and wildlife habitat as old-growth stands will not be allowed to regenerate, and would be converted to second-growth tree farm stands with little wildlife value.

People of the Forest:

The North American coastal temperate rainforest has been inhabited by humans for over 5000 years. It is estimated that First Nation’s inhabitants of this biome included over 250,000 people, representing some 68 distinct language groups. These people found home in the forest, and depended not on farming or herding, but on the natural abundance of the region. For the most part, the people of the Alaska region still do today.

In Alaska, these indigenous people include the Aleut, Chugach Eskimo, Eyak, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida. Today, the Alaska rainforest is home to about 100,000 people, native and non-native. These people are connected to the natural world in ways lost long ago elsewhere - subsistence is still an important source of food, and most economic activity is derived directly from the forest and sea - commercial fishing, subsistence hunting and fishing, wilderness recreation, tourism, sport fishing and hunting, and logging. Most people depend on the forest for cash, food, and cultural identity.

Extent of Deforestation:

Globally, the temperate rainforest is not only rare, it is also probably the most severely threatened ecosystem on Earth. Because of their high timber volume, value, and proximity to coasts, these forests have been easy fare for loggers. It is estimated that about 70% - 80% of the world’s coastal temperate rainforests have been logged, most within the past 50 years.

For the North American coastal rainforest, it is estimated that over 50% has been "disturbed" - or logged. Alaback and Weigand estimate that logging has claimed 90% - 95% of the Pacific Northwest forest, 65% - 75% of the B.C. forest, and 30% - 40% of Alaska’s coastal forest. Thus, the Alaska forest represents the largest relatively intact coastal temperate rainforest on Earth - a considerable opportunity and obligation.

On the southern end of the forest, only small fragments of old-growth remain - less than 2% - and there are no unlogged coastal watersheds. Further north, more and more primal forest remains. In Alaska, forest land ownership is complex, and is in part a determinant of deforestation.

History of Deforestation

Causes and solutions to deforestation in the Alaska rainforest can begin to be understood in context of the history of the timber industry throughout this century. As with other resource issues in Alaska, the coastal forest became another tragic story in unsustainable, short-term exploitation - furs, whales, gold, oil and trees. The history is recorded in several places - including Alaska’s Forest Resources, 1985; America’s Vanishing Rainforest, 1986; The History of Alaska, 1985; American Forests, 1997 - from which much of the following comes.

Just after the nation’s first two national forests were established in Alaska in 1907 - the 17 million acre Tongass in southeast, and the 7 million acre Chugach in southcentral - the newly formed U.S. Forest Service called for "a rapid liquidation of the old-growth forest", which it saw as "overmature." What had for centuries been the very lifeblood for coastal peoples, was turned almost overnight into a "marketable commodity."

By 1917, there were about 50 sawmills operating on about 40 million board feet (mmbf) of timber from the coastal forest annually. While some spruce was exported to the lower-48 and to England and Australia, much was still used locally - for the construction of railroads, fish canneries, houses, mines. Recognizing the higher value and easier access to timber for export from the more southerly forests of the Pacific Northwest, the attention in Alaska turned to pulp.

At the time, the Forest Service proposed to establish 14 timber zones - or "working circles"- in southeast Alaska, with a pulp mill in the center of each. In 1927 the first scheme to provide an enormous amount of the forest to commercial enterprises was enacted - two 50-year contracts were offered by the Forest Service to provide over 8 billion board feet of pulp logs to Crown Zellerbach Paper Co. and to the L.A. Times and San Francisco Chronicle. If these contracts had not been canceled due to economic difficulties from the Great Depression, they would have initiated the most massive deforestation yet seen in the North American rainforest. Despite these early efforts at establishing a large-scale pulp industry in the Alaska coastal forest, economics protected the forest - at least for awhile.

The Pulp Mill Era -

After WW II, there was a desire among some in government to increase to the number of people living along the remote Alaska coast for strategic reasons if for no other, and the development of a pulp industry was viewed as one of the best ways to accomplish this goal. Some leaders in Congress, the Forest Service, and the territorial government still held deep-rooted passion for ‘settling the west’, and the Alaska coast was one of the few remaining frontiers to be settled. Until this time, the region’s economy had been dominated by the salmon industry in three summer months each year, and political leaders wanted to form a stable, year-round economy. With the shortage of newsprint just after WW II, an ambitious plan was developed to provide this pulp from Alaska. As described by Haycox, 1997, five pulp mills were to be built in southeast Alaska, each providing about 500 tons of pulp per day for 50 years. It was estimated then that 4 people would be employed per ton of pulp produced, or about 2,000 people per mill. With family and others involved, it was estimated that perhaps 6,500 people per mill would settle in the region. This would, in turn, provide a stable tax base to support the formation and operation of a state government.

The pulp companies argued that there was a great deal of risk in this proposed industrial development on the remote coast of Alaska, and that they would need a gauranteed, long-term timber supply - something the Forest Service was more than willing to supply. Despite claims asserted by local Tlingit and Haida tribes that the forest was ancestral land that should be in Native ownership rather than U.S. government ownership, the political forces of the day who wanted to build a pulp industry saw such things as aboriginal claims to land as a threat to their industrial vision for the region. And, in what was later called "Alaska’s Teapot Dome" after an earlier land/money scandal, the Tongass Timber Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1947. As a result of "close collaboration" between the pulp companies and a few politicians, the act sanctioned and encouraged the Forest Service to enter into unprecedented long-term timber contracts, despite aboriginal native claims to the forest. This act opened the way for three 50-year timber contracts that came to dominate activity in the southeast Alaska forest for the next several decades.

The very next year, the Forest Service awarded a 50-year contract to a partnership between Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Co. and American Viscose Co. to produce rayon, which organized the Ketchikan Pulp Corporation (KPC). The KPC pulp mill opened at Ward Cove near Ketchikan in 1954. That same year, another smaller long-term contract was given to a sawmill in Wrangell. And finally, the Japanese, who were in need of new sources of fiber and timber after WW II, were encouraged to come to Alaska by the U.S. Departments of State and Defense. The Japanese industrialists formed the Alaska Lumber and Pulp Company, were awarded a 50-year, 5 billion board feet contract for timber from the northern southeast Alaska forest, and in 1959 built their pulp mill at Silver Bay, near Sitka.

Thus, as a result of the Tongass Timber Act, in just 10 years over 15 billion board feet of the Alaska coastal forest was obligated to be logged over the next half-century. This would have been much of the high-density, old-growth forests, and then some. Ultimately, just over 15 billion board feet of timber was eventually harvested from the Tongass from the early 1950’s until today. The amount of money earned by the federal government for these 50-year sales was so small that many felt that the government had essentially given the timber away. There had been intense political pressure from Alaska politicians to get the Forest Service to open up the coastal forest for large-scale industrial exploitation.

The Forest Service’s 1964 plan called for clearcutting 95% of the Tongass "as soon as possible" to supply the pulp mills. The Ketchikan and Sitka pulp mills were sustained by these unprecedented 50-year contracts for publicly owned forest. A new era in the Alaska coastal forest had emerged - one that was dominated by short-term, selfish interest. Timber extraction became the dominant goal of what was called "forest management." This was the era when the forest was still seen as unending, and there now existed the ability to harvest and market a great deal of it quickly. This was still the industrial frontier, going through yet another boom to be followed by its inevitable bust.

In 1965, the Forest Service offered yet another 8.75 billion board feet timber sale - on top of the three already existing 50-year contracts for 15 billion board feet - to St. Regis Paper Company, which then transferred the contract to U.S. Plywood-Champion Paper, Inc. The sale was for old-growth forests on Admiralty Island - called Kootznoowoo - "island of the bears" in Tlingit - an important wildlife habitat. Now, far more timber was under contract to be cut than could possible be supplied from the accessible, high-density coastal forests - a fact that didn’t seem to bother the Forest Service or the pulp companies. The 1960s and 1970s saw the deforestation of the Tongass forest at its height - up to 600 mmbf from 20,000-30,000 acres was being cut each year - 10 times the pre-pulp days of the first half of the century. Each year, the industry had an economic output of over $500 million, with direct employment at around 3,000 people and another 2,000 support jobs. In the history of the Tongass, since 1909, about 17.4 billion board feet of old-growth forest has been logged - over 90% of it since the first pulp mill opened in 1954.

But in 1970 - the year of the first Earth Day - a dramatic turn of events for the coastal forest occurred. For the first time, citizens successfully intervened to halt this unsustainable deforestation. Based on alleged violations of a new federal law - the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) - the Sierra Club and other Alaska environmental groups sued to stop the huge, 8.75 billion board feet Champion Paper sale, and the sale was terminated by Champion and the Forest Service in 1976. Also, a couple of small-scale local loggers, the Reid brothers, filed suit contending that the two pulp mills had conspired to put them and other independent loggers out of business through price fixing and other collusive activity. The suit was ultimately decided in favor of the plaintiffs - that the pulp mills had indeed violated the Sherman anti-trust act - and the Reid Brothers were paid $1.5 million in damages.

By the early 1970s, the grand vision held by a few industrialists for the "liquidation" of most of the southern Alaska forest was in trouble. The Forest Service made one last desperate attempt to revive the embattled timber industry. In 1975, their new land management plan for the forest designated timber harvest as the "key value", and tried to reinstate the old "working circles" concept from earlier in the century. The plan, which would have resulted in timber sales of over 800 mmbf/year, evoked furious opposition, and was ultimately abandoned. The era of pulp mill dominance was over, and a new era in the Alaska coastal forest began. The tide of unsustainable deforestation on Alaska’s national forest land had begun to turn. Recognizing this dilemma, the attention of the timber industry turned to private lands.

Native Land Claims

It was another of Alaska’s resource bonanzas - discovery of north slope oil in 1968 - that would open the way for a new assault on the coastal forest. In order to clear title to the lands the oil industry wanted to build the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline across from the north slope to Prince William Sound, Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. Through this act, Alaska Natives were deeded legal title to 44 million acres of land, given about $1 billion, and organized into for-profit corporations. ANCSA was the brainchild of Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who proudly touted the act as a radical piece of "social engineering." Like others before him, he believed that Alaska’s Native people should be assimilated into lives much like other Americans - above all, there should no longer be tribal governments, just corporations.

Under ANCSA, Alaska’s 220 Native villages formed for-profit corporations, and 13 regional corporations were established. All land and money received through ANCSA became corporate assets - something completely foreign to the ancestral relation to the land. In one perhaps well intentioned act by the U.S. Congress, the ancient bonds between people and the land had been severed. In retrospect, ANCSA was the Trojan Horse for Manifest Destiny on the last frontier. To many industrialists, ANCSA became a cynical means of opening up millions of acres of ancestral lands to short-term, commercial exploitation. By one stroke of Richard Nixon’s pen, Alaska’s Native people were enlisted to advance the unsustainable exploitation of Alaska’s natural resources, particularly the coastal forest.

The full impact of ANCSA is just now beginning to be understood. At its heart is the fact that the land, heretofore seen as a sacred, ancestral endowment, was now a corporate asset to be "capitalized" for money. Alaska Natives, who had been powerful opponents of industrial deforestation before, were now to be enlisted into the very short-term profit ideology of their fomer industrial adversaries. By the reflective assessment of most Native peoples participating in the 1980s Alaska Native Review Commission, the claims act has been an utter and unequivocal failure. It has been a success, however, for various corporate interests intent on industrializing Alaska and the modern-day assimilation of indigenous peoples.

In the coastal rainforest, about 20 new native village corporations and two new regional corporations were established under the act. Together, these new corporations selected over 1 million acres of old-growth forest to own - selections that were often based more on potential timber value rather than ancestral heritage. The new corporations were counseled, coached, and managed mostly by outside, non-native industrial consultants, and overnight the coastal forest became a valuable marketable asset. The act established a new force in the timber industry, one that didn’t have to play by the same rules as the industry operating on public lands. These private corporations could, for instance, export logs in the round, something prohibited from federal lands. They weren’t required to manage for sustained yields, and were exempt from certain important environmental restrictions.

But even being deeded title to these forest lands did not guarantee financial success in this brave new world of resource development in the international market. Due to mismanagement, corruption, high operating costs, and unstable timber markets, many of the corporations fell upon hard times - some went bankrupt. So, in 1986 when Congress shut down a commonly abused tax loophole that allowed the sale of net-operating-losses (NOLs), it was persuaded to leave the loophole open for Alaska Native corporations to use, so Congress thought, to help them out of hard times. Corporate America, shut out of the old loophole, simply headed north with some "friendly" advice - if Native corporations would artificially devalue their resource assets - particularly timber - and then essentially give these assets to timber companies, they could create NOLs for sale. The corporation’s attorneys quickly crafted many such deals, most without any money actually changing hands, and the Native corporations then sold these artificially created losses to profitable corporations elsewhere in the U.S. - Disney, Hilton, Nabisco, Marriott, Quaker Oats, Del/Web, Walgreen, etc. - who in turn would write these newly acquired losses off on their own corporate taxes, and pay the Native Corporation about a third to a half of what they saved on their taxes. And it could all be done on paper, and the American people and the Alaska forest would be made to pay.

An example is as follows: a Native corporation owns say 100,000 acres of forest land which might have been valued at $30 million in the mid 1980s, "sells" the timber to a joint-venture partnership between a timber company and themselves for say $2 million, creating a $28 million net-operating-loss. The Native corporation would then sell this $28 million NOL to say Nabisco, who would then write this $28 million loss off on their own taxes, and pay the Native corporation on the order of $10 million in cash. All of a sudden, the Native corporation had $10 million in cash, and an established timber company owned 100,000 acres of old-growth coastal forest for virtually nothing. What would not have been a financially feasible operation - logging this forest for export in the late 80s and 90s - now seemed too good to pass up.

Congress had been told by one Senator to expect maybe $40 million in Native corporation NOL sales, but was shocked to learn that just in the first year Alaska Native corporations instead reported over $1 billion in NOL transactions. The NOL loophole was shut down for good in 1989, but the damage had already been done - virtually all of the forests on ancestral Native lands in southern Alaska were now open to rapacious, short-term, unsustainable development that otherwise would not have been financially feasible. And the newly subsidized timber industry, beginning to be curtailed on federal lands, went wild on Native corporation lands.

Before long, timber harvest from Alaska Native corporation lands surpassed harvest volumes from the national forests, and have remained so ever since. For instance, while Native corporation harvests started at only 10 mmbf total in 1978, they climbed to over 200 mmbf by the early 80s. But after the NOLs of the mid-1980s, harvest volumes from Native corporation lands in southern Alaska tripled to 650 mmbf in 1989, compared to 450 mmbf harvested from national forests in Alaska that same year. That year - 1989 - deforestation in Alaska coastal forest reached its peak - about 1.1 billion board feet. This is a level perhaps ten times what many believe to be sustainable. Harvest levels from Native corporation lands have recently begun to decline as much of the forest has already been high-graded and cut, and due to the market downturn. Still, in 1997, the total timber harvest from Native corporation lands in the coastal forest was about 620 mmbf, or about 5 times the total harvest from the national forests the same year. Over the post-NOL decade , much of the prime Native-owned coastal forest has been cut and sent to Japan, often with little left to show for it all. Some of the Native corporations actually lost money on this logging spree.

Without doubt, this was one of the most remarkable tragedies in resource management and Native relations in our nation’s history. It should be pointed out that there was nothing remotely sustainable about this level of harvest, as there had not been from Tongass land in the pulp-mill era. There were notable dissenting indigenous activists throughout this logging era, but their voices were always overwhelmed by those of their coporate leaders. For thousands of years, Alaska Natives had organized their economic activities in a far different way. But now, as Jerry Mander said, "the corporation may prove just as fatal a technology as the machine gun was to Indians of the American plains was a hundred years ago."

State of Alaska Lands

Alaska leaders had blamed restrictive federal land use policies for the lack of development and settlement of the Alaska coast for years, and this was indeed one of the motivations behind statehood, finally granted in 1959. The granting of statehood also allowed the new State of Alaska to select 104 million acres of former federal lands in Alaska. About 400,000 acres was selected from the two national forests. Most of this land was selected by the state based on timber potential, and as Alaska politics are notoriously pro-development, much of this land has been offered for timber harvest. Over the past decade or so, harvests from State of Alaska lands in the coastal forest have fluctuated widely between 3 mmbf - 20 mmbf.

Forest Protection

Importantly, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act also included a provision, section 17 (d) (2), that authorized the Secretary of Interior to identify up to 80 million additional acres of land in Alaska for possible protection as national interest conservation lands. Just as this "d-2" debate began, the Forest Service had developed their new Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) which proposed to allocate over 60% of the prime old-growth forest to logging. These two opposing initiatives met head-to-head on the national stage in the late 1970s.

When the d-2 legislation was stalled in Congress in 1978, then Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus invoked the emergency authority granted to him by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) to withdraw from development 110 million acres of Alaska land. A month later, President Carter used the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate another 56 million acres as national monuments, including Admiralty Island and Misty Fjords in the southeast forest. Such administrative decisions raised the ire of industrial interests in and out of Alaska, and caused both sides to come to terms in the d-2 debate. The Senate and the House passed different versions of legislation in the fall of 1980, and conservationists ultimately had to settle for the Senate - the least favorable - version, fearing what the newly elected and soon to be inaugurated Ronald Reagan might decide to do. The resulting Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was one of the last laws signed by out-going President Jimmy Carter in December 1980. The act added 104 million acres to the federal conservation system, and designated 57 million acres of new wilderness - tripling the size of the U.S. wilderness system.

Despite the remarkable success for conservation, the act fell far short on several significant provisions. While the act created 14 new wilderness areas in the Tongass totaling over 5 million acres, this was only half the amount that would have been set aside had the more protective House version been adopted. Notable was the fact that, except for the Admiralty monument, the wilderness established by the act was mostly rock, ice, meadows, and alpine habitat - not the low elevation, high-density old-growth forests critical to fisheries and wildlife values. Thus, the forest most coveted by the timber industry was still available for logging. Further, the act provided a permanent appropriation of $40 million or "as much as the Secretary of Agriculture finds is necessary to maintain the timber supply from the Tongass National Forest to dependent industry", at a rate of 450 mmbf/year.

As a result of this last subsidy provision, the Tongass has the distinction of losing more tax dollars than any other national forest in the U.S. For instance, taxpayers lost about $102 million from 1992-1994 selling timber from the Tongass to private companies. The 50-year contracts side-stepped the competitive bidding process for the two pulp mills, enabling them to bid for timber at a rate far below a competitive rate. During the early 90s, KPC paid an average of $6.95 / 1000 board feet of coastal forest timber, while independent loggers paid an average of $97 / 1000 board feet. To add insult to injury, most of what the companies "paid" for the timber was in kind in the form of logging roads across federal lands. Ralph Nader calculates that we already have some 378,000 miles of roads in our national forests, or about 8 times more miles of roads in our interstate highway system.


One of the primary, direct causes for the unsustainable logging in the southeast Alaska rainforest was the market for dissolving pulp from the two pulp mills. Paper pulp was not produced by these mills. The market was primarily for rayon and cellophane. It has been estimated that 50%-60% of the southeast forest are pulp grade trees, the remainder saw log quality. Because of the primary processing rule for federal timber, all exported saw logs were traditionally processed into "cants" - rough-cut 8 1/2" slabs cut from the logs. Native corporations are exempt from this primary processing export restriction, and most of their timber has been exported in the round to Asian markets.

Demand for Alaska coastal forest wood is tempered by the high costs of operating in Alaska both for harvesting and manufacturing - operations occur in remote locations that are expensive to supply, energy costs are high, and there are long distances to transport logs to mills, an absence of an extensive road system or railroads, high labor costs, and weather difficulties. This makes Alaska mills significantly less competitive than other less remote producers, such as in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. This high production cost will most likely always plague the timber industry in Alaska, and help protect the forest.

Over 95% of the cants and round logs from the Alaska coastal forest go to Japan for housing. But most of Japan’s house lumber comes from British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest forests. And in Japan, the number of housing starts has remained relatively static over the past 25 years, at about 1 1/2 million/year. More importantly, the number of wood-based housing starts has fallen precipitously, with contractors instead turning to alternative materials that were often more durable and less expensive. For instance, in 1996 only 46% of the houses built in Japan were wood-based, compared to 77% in 1965. The sliding demand for lumber in Japan is a good sign for the Alaska forest. Lumber and cant exports from Alaska to Japan, which totaled 211 mmbf in 1990, had slipped to only 25 mmbf by 1996. The roots of this decline can be traced to some extent to the age structure of the Japanese population, because it is generally young people that start new houses. The Japanese population is now relatively stable, and the number of young people between the ages of 20 - 40 has remained about constant for some time. And, Japan has turned more to cheaper, higher volume suppliers, namely B.C., Canada, Russia, and the southeastern United States.

Similar trends are evident in the market for dissolving pulp, which traditionally went mostly to Japan as well. There has been a progressive world-wide shift over the past few decades from cellulose-based fiber products to alternative materials such as cotton, wool, and synthetic polyesters. And, as with saw logs, lower-cost competitors have been increasing their market share. One dissolving pulp mill that opened in South Africa in the mid-80s, for instance, relies on fast growing eucalyptus, grown on plantations with a rotation period as short as 12 years. The raw material is thus cheaper, more accessible, and it is much less costly to transport the final product than from the remote forests along the Alaska coast. Thus, there are more efficient, lower-cost producers competing for a shrinking world market for pulp. As a result, exports of Alaska pulp to Japan declined from over 100,000 metric tons in 1990 to less than 13,000 tons in 1996. Total exports of Alaska pulp - which also went to Taiwan, South Korea, West Germany, Indonesia, and China - declined from about 300,000 tons in 1990 to about 100,000 tons in 1996. Adding to the market downturn is the strengthening of the U.S. dollar against many foreign currencies, including the Japanese yen. Thus, foreign markets have considerably less buying power - 20% - 30% in some cases - for U.S. products than just a few years ago.

Chip exports, all to Japan, have actually increased ten-fold over the past few years, from 11,000 tons in 1992 up to 166,000 tons in 1996. This is most likely a result of the closure of the pulp mills, as some of the raw material that had been pulped in Alaska is now being exported as chips. A recent Forest Service sponsored market study projects the demand for Alaska coastal wood products will continue to be depressed on through the year 2010.

Other potential uses have been proposed, including the production of ethanol and/or medium density fiberboard from Alaska coastal trees. But these remain speculative and would only provide a limited market at best. As one long-time mill owner recently commented regarding the Alaska timber market - "it’s about as far down in the hole as I’ve ever seen it."

Southeast Alaska - Today

The Alaska Pulp Corporation (APC) mill in Sitka was closed in 1993 due mainly to the declining pulp markets, increased pollution control costs, and an increase in price for saw logs. Their 50-year contract was canceled by the Forest Service the next spring. And, after an effort by the Alaska Congressional delegation to extend the Kecthikan Pulp Corporation (KPC) contract another 23 years failed in 1996, the only other pulp mill - in Ketchikan - shut down in March, 1997. KPC also pleaded guilty to several pollution violations, and agreed to pay for a $150 - $200 million cleanup at its Ward Cove site. The cancellation of these two disastrous long-term contracts dramatically reduced the amount of timber the Forest Service was obligated to provide from the coastal forest. About 24 small sawmills are operating today, and 3 or 4 mid-sized sawmills are operating as well. Employment in the timber industry is today at about 1,800, down from the 3,500 at its peak in 1990.

With the Republican victories in the 1994 Congressional elections, the Alaska delegation took over the chairmanships of the most important resource committees in the U.S. Congress. And as they had always been ardent supporters of a large timber industry in southern Alaska, they launched a vigorous campaign to elevate timber harvest once again to become the primary goal of coastal forest management. The delegation has tried, as yet unsuccessfully, to revitalize a large-scale timber industry of decades gone by: they attempted to legislatively mandate a substantial increase in the harvest level to 500 mmbf/year from the Tongass; to transfer over 100,000 acres of prime old-growth forest to 5 new private Native Corporations for logging, to give hundreds of thousands of acres of prime coastal forestland to the University of Alaska to log for revenue generation, and attempted to transfer the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest to the State of Alaska through the "Transfer and Transition Act", opening it up for increased short-term exploitation. Despite these many attempts by the powerful Alaska delegation, the two 50-year contracts, and the pulp mills that they fed, are now gone. The Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) as revised in 1997, shrinks the timber base by 864,000 acres, and bars roads from another 1.8 million acres of non-timber land. But while all other national forests in the nation are presently under a road building moratorium, the Tongass was exempted.

The amount of timber harvest from the Tongass is now under 100 mmbf/year - a level considered sustainable - for the first time since 1954. But there are still problems with the TLMP as revised. According to the Forest Service, the timber industry still has access to over 1.25 billion board feet of Tongass timber over the next two years, that is either under contract, unsold from previous years, or currently scheduled for sale. The Forest Service is proposing over 20 large new timber sales of about 800 mmbf, many in sensitive wildlife habitat areas, such as Poison Cove, Ushk Bay, and East Kuiu. These actions would place under sale about four times the amount of timber the industry can cut now in a year. The Forest Service has set the Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ) at 267 mmbf/year - or over 2 1/2 times the present harvest level. At today’s market, many sales are not even bid.

Of the 1/3 of the total area of the Tongass that is considered commercial forest - 5.7 million acres - about 40% are protected by law. But, 75% of the most productive old-growth remains unprotected. Under the TLMP revision, 3.7 million acres of the Tongass remain open to development, with 1.3 million acres designated as "tentatively suitable" for logging.

One of the concessions the delegation won during this turbulent economic transition was the establishment of a $135 million "Economic Disaster Fund" in federal assistance for southeast Alaska communities. These monies - paid over a four year period from 1996 through 1999 - are envisioned to help ease the transition of southeast communities from an unsustainable pulp-based timber economy to something more sustainable. Monies have gone to communities - primarily Ketchikan, Sitka, and Wrangell - and are being used for a wide variety of projects, including a shipyard and drydock, fishery development, tourism, water and sewer, parks and trails, public safety, emergency medical services, museums, waste-to-energy projects, mineral exploration, and cleanup of old mill sites. Most communities have established permanent funds to invest and manage the disaster relief monies. Ironically, even a golf course has been built in Wrangell on old mill waste-filled wetlands with these funds.

Southcentral Alaska - Today

In southcentral Alaska, virtually all logging has occurred not on federal lands but on Native corporation lands beginning in the early 1980s. While there have been recent proposals to harvest as much as 50 mmbf - mostly as "salvage logging" - from the Chugach National Forest, actual harvests to date have been nominal, never exceeding 2 mmbf/year. Alaska Native corporations selected for ownership much of the high-density forest in southcentral and, spurred mostly by the NOL sales of the late 1980s, the corporations began logging lands in Prince William Sound and the southern Kenai Peninsula at a rapid rate. Afognak Island, with higher timber densities than the more northerly stands, had been extensively logged for sometime.

Ironically, it was another disaster that precipitated a solution to this unsustainable logging in southcentral Alaska - the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989. The oil spill turned out to be the most damaging spill in human history - more mammals, birds killed than any on record. Coastal fishing communities were enveloped in economic and social chaos for years. As a result of citizen demands, the government natural resource damage case was settled with Exxon out-of-court for $1 billion in October 1991. The primary incentive for settling the case out-of-court was to sidestep protracted litigation and receive monies to use for ecosystem protection and restoration. The settlement initiated the most extensive attempt in human history to mitigate the damage caused by an industrial disaster - ever. And as much as we would like to believe that we could fix the ecosystem damage from such an industrial disaster, we can’t. The most we can really do is to protect the injured ecosystem from further injury, thus allowing it to heal on its own. This is precisely why residents of the oil spill region called for a quick out-of-court settlement with Exxon. Protecting coastal fish and wildlife habitat from further destruction - such as the forest clearcutting that was just beginning in the region - was viewed as the most effective means of assisting the region in its healing - ecological, social, economic, and spiritual.

In the past several years, the State/Federal Trustees of the Restoration Fund have protected over 700,000 acres of critical fish and wildlife habitat along the southcentral Alaska coast at a cost of about $500 million. These habitat deals have secured permanent protection for precious old-growth forest and riparian areas on over 1,000 miles of coastline and 300 salmon streams. Taken together with the surrounding protected conservation areas, this restoration program has protected intact several million acres along the southern Alaska coast.

Despite this success however, many conservationists point out that the government trustees of the restoration fund moved much too slowly to protect coastal lands from clearcutting. As a result of this bureaucratic inertia, tens of thousands of acres of critical fish and wildlife habitat were lost while the government agencies held countless planning meetings. A poignant example of this problem is that the Port Fidalgo area of Prince William Sound- judged to be one of the most important habitat areas in need of protection by the government scientists - was not "protected" until the loggers were finished with it just last year.

The Native corporations that sold conservation easements and land title to the government in the interest of restoration have managed their proceeds mostly in settlement trusts, invested in long-term securities, are paying substantial cash dividends to their shareholders, and are supporting various sustainable economic projects such as tourism and fishing. For the first time, these people have been paid for the conservation of their lands rather than the exploitation of them. This, hopefully, marks a turning point in the relationship of humans to land in Alaska and elsewhere. Where once there had been an economic incentive only to exploit the land, there was now an incentive to protect the land and find other sustainable means of living on it.

This restoration effort also marked the recognition by government that industrial clearcutting is not compatible with other values of coastal forest land such as fish, wildlife, scenery, tourism, commercial fishing, subsistence, and spirit. This was a remarkable admission. As a result, there is at present little commercial logging in the southcentral Alaska coastal forest - none in the coastal forests of Prince William Sound and the southern Kenai Peninsula. Many consider this a truly remarkable success for economic and ecological sustainability.

A new era

At long last, after a half-century of devastation, we now seem to be returning to what is considered to be a sustainable forest industry in coastal Alaska. For the first time in many decades, timber sales in the Tongass are under 100 mmbf/year - a level considered sustainable by conservationists. Also, there is very little commercial cutting on the Chugach. It is important to understand though, that logging on these national forest lands in Alaska could change dramatically with a different alignment of the federal administration and the Congress.

With respect to Native corporations, many have either liquidated most of their forest holdings, sold conservation easements in the interest of ecosystem restoration in southcentral Alaska, or begun to restrict harvests due to the market downturn, but harvest levels are still considered far too high to protect other resource values of these lands. Harvests from state lands are still in the 5 - 20 mmbf range.

But this is a qualified victory at best. Much of the most valuable old-growth forest has been removed during this gluttonous half-century. At least half of the high-density forest in southeast Alaska has been cut - about 1 million acres - and much in southcentral Alaska as well. If some proposals make it through Congress, a new era of unsustainable deforestation could easily erupt. Many of our most precious places are gone, and with a 200 - 400 year regeneration period, we will never see them again as we knew them. Our great, great, great, great grandchildren may.

Causes of Deforestation

In the preceding history of timber harvest in the Alaska coastal rainforest, several coherent threads become apparent. The list of primary actors in the deforestation of the Alaska coastal forest is relatively straightforward. Initially, the main players in the effort to develop a large timber industry along the Alaska coast were territorial leaders who wanted to see more settlement and economic activity along the southern coast. After WW II, it was the administrative and legislative policy-makers from Washington who joined the effort to increase settlement of the remote Alaska coast. Recognizing the world’s new thirst for pulp, they reasoned that the development of a pulp industry would be the quickest way to populate the area. Collaborators in this early pulp development, of course, were the major pulp producing companies of the day - Crown Zellerbach, Puget Sound Pulp and Timber, and the several Japanese industrialists who built the mill in Sitka. They all saw the potential to realize huge profits, if not from the production of pulp in Alaska, then from the reprocessing and ultimate sale of rayon and cellophane products. Of particular note here is that the impetus was mostly from a collaboration of a few local political leaders, Washington policy makers, and distant industrialists. These individuals felt that the coast of Alaska lay fallow without enough people to "work it." In all, perhaps only a couple of dozen people made all the decisions.

Once the pulp mill era was up and running, there developed a larger local constituency for deforestation - loggers and their families, mill operators and workers, suppliers, etc.

This, of course, was part of the plan and has carried through to today. The newest arrival on the side of deforestation was the Alaska Native people, who had been organized into for-profit corporations by the U.S. Congress through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. This created a powerful new force in deforestation of the coastal forest, for three primary reasons. First, these new Native corporations selected title to hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forest along the Alaska coast. Second, these new corporations were under management of non-native, short-term thinking industrialists looking for a way to maximize short-term gains, regardless of long-term financial, environmental, and cultural consequences. And finally, efforts to curtail or restrict these new Native corporation logging activities were criticized as being "anti-native", making for an extremely volatile political climate in which to restrain the unsustainable logging.

Timber industry interests formed the Alaska Loggers Association, later renamed the Alaska Forest Association, to leverage influence over policy decisions both by the State of Alaska and by the U.S. Congress. Though the timber industry was still relatively small in number - 3,000 - 5,000 folks - they were able to exact their will in the forest policy arena through substantial campaign contributions to Congressional and state candidates who would advance their cause once elected. This constituency also made their presence known in Juneau and Washington with skilled professional lobbyists, and with public relations and media efforts to influence public opinion on the logging issue.

Today, Alaska’s congressional delegation and the majority of the State Legislature are ardent supporters of timber extraction as the primary resource activity in the coastal forest. While timber is not the political powerhouse that oil or fishing are, it is still formidable. Government officials want to be seen as doing something - doing virtually anything is seen as better than doing nothing. And the vast forest standing along the southern Alaska shore was simply too good for them to ignore as a political issue. It simply "had" to be exploited, or so they said. The two 50-year contracts to supply the mills in Ketchikan and Sitka were the result of this yearning to "develop" the coast.

So, there have been all the typical actors on center stage - the big timber/pulp companies, the mills in Alaska, the loggers and associated support people, the consumers of the final products, the Native corporations, and the politicians who enabled it all. Many political careers have been built on the issue of deforesting the coastal forest, and many fortunes have been made.

In retrospect, a great deal of this was another of the many "man-vs-wilderness" stories that have played out over the last two centuries in Alaska. The vast Alaska wilderness was seen by many as in need of industrialization to make it "whole." In this sort of ideological climate, the southcoastal forest was ripe for the picking. On the surface, this has been a chess game between opposing ideologies. Those who have prospered financially from logging the forest the most have also gained immense social status and political power within the region.

Underlying Causes

The underlying causes of this sort of short-term, selfish, environmentally destructive behavior have been written about by many. In the limited space here, I will simply reflect on some personal observations and intuition regarding all of this.

First and foremost, on a very basic level, we Homo sapiens are animals, with all the animal instincts and behaviors that help any species survive. As Wes Jackson once said, "As a species, we were hard-wired during the upper Paleolithic, but we are now trying to get along in the 20th century." Indeed. Our deepest psychological needs and resulting behaviors seem more adaptive to a very different era in the history of human evolution. Essentially, we are selfish, competitive, territorial, tribal, and afraid of each other and the world. We are still acting out very primitive social behaviors in our every day lives.

Much scholarly work has been published on this, including that of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, 1980. Wilson describes how various behavioral relationships are selected for by social evolution: altruism - whereby your actions increase another’s biological fitness while your own genetic fitness is diminished; selfishness - where your actions lower another’s fitness while increasing your own; and spite - where your actions lower the fitness of another competitor while also reducing your own. Missing from this discussion, of course, is symbiosis, or commensalism, where one’s actions benefit both parties. It is my feeling that western society in particular operates primarily by selfishness and spite. We are clumsily taught to be kind and altruistic, but then mostly act out of selfish desire, and even spite.

How this primitive, social programming plays out in the deforestation phenomenon is that, once the forest can be viewed as no longer sacred - something that will be discussed below - it then becomes a template or "resource" upon which to act out these primitive social behaviors. The forest becomes a commodity by which individuals can seek to maximize their competitive advantage - either political or financial - over others. Politicians have used their power to make large areas of the Alaska forest available to timber interests, such as through the two 50-year contracts in the Tongass and the allowance of NOLs for Alaska Native corporations. In return, they receive a reciprocal obligation of support from those who benefit most from these deals. Those who benefit the most financially become extremely wealthy, and thus exert much more financial and political will than those who benefit less, making the wealthy a defacto ruling class unto themselves. The function of this sort of political economics has been to concentrate wealth. I would estimate that over 50% of the wealth that has been extracted from the Alaska coastal forest throughout this pulp mill era has gone into the pockets of perhaps only 30 - 40 individuals. This wealthy industrial elite has exerted its political power largely through campaign contributions to those who would best return the economic advantage. Thus, campaign contributions are really no more than purely selfish acts seeking to derive personal financial leverage and advantage.

That we are still, at heart, aggressive and competitive can be seen any evening on the news - warfare, sports, violence, etc. - all serving as a forum of competition. The tribal nature of competition can be seen in the extraordinary popularity of football, basketball, soccer, hockey, etc., where there are two troops of primates, each defending home territories while aggressing against the other into "enemy" territory. This is a behavior patterned long ago, in very different circumstances, but is still operative today. This sort of behavior can also, unfortunately, be seen in the virtually constant warfare and territorial conflict that occurs throughout the world. Some analysts have found that some human societies, Europe for instance, have been engaged in warfare about 50% of the time for the past 1,000 years. Also, never underestimate the chemical basis for this aggression - testosterone is proven to be a potent stimulator of aggressive behavior.

This sort of tribal aggression and competition can also be seen as a root cause of deforestation, as one troop of primates - the timber industry, for instance - seeks to establish its territorial rights to a forest area, and zealously defends its right to do with the forest what it pleases. Further, industrial corporations - including the large timber and pulp companies and Native corporations - envision themselves as continually in competition for their very existence. As Lester Milbraith points out, corporations - the principal instrument of the "patriarchal dominator society" - are controlled by "a small, patriarchal elite pursuing male values: money, power, domination, and control." Life of the corporation becomes an end in itself, and many of the individual and species survival mechanisms seen in the natural world come to play. Concentrating wealth within your control becomes dominant to virtually any other motivation.

From this instinctual, evolutionarily patterned behavior has come a contemporary worldview that places humans and self squarely at the center of the world, much like the old conceptions of the Earth and universe. This view is espoused by virtually all in the western world, and many elsewhere, and it is so universally held that it is little noticed. It is the dominant and growing paradigm globally. It’s characteristics include anthropocentrism, private property rights, individual rights to maximize self advantage over others, and nature as an exploitable asset. This last characteristic is perhaps the most significant, and is to some extent facilitated by the development of monotheism centuries ago.

The Book of Genesis in the Bible gave man "dominion" over the world, and dispenses with any sense of commonality with nature, and more importantly argues for the moral necessity of man’s manipulation and control over the natural world. As Eugene Linden wrote, "should the modern equivalent of the Book of Genesis be proposed by the U.S. Senate, it would be dismissed as a partisan ploy by the business lobby." The traditional belief in animist gods in nature simply had to be done away with if man was to advantage himself over nature and other people. As Toynbee and others have suggested - we cannot exploit what we worship.

Animism broke down as human population increased and pressures mounted on the natural world, and all of a sudden, heaven was somewhere else and the physical, material world of nature was exploitable - a matter of considerable convenience to various industrial forces intent on exacting their own desires in the world. This profound disconnect from the natural world plays out even stronger today. Christian theism is interpreted by many to sanction the domination of the natural world by humans, that there is "a better life" waiting somewhere else later on, that unchecked human population growth is good, and claims God’s authority to expiate any and all sins committed along the way.

The resulting synthetic, consumer culture is today everywhere - just look at any modern shopping center or city street. The recent materialism has been very seductive - it is meant to liberate us from our primary anxiety - the search for self identity and security. Thus, who we are becomes what we have - we are what we own - our net worth is our self worth. In this relatively new worldview, profit and production become ends in themselves, and self advantage is the primary objective.

Most of the decisions resulting in the deforestation in Alaska’s coastal forest have been made by what Phillip Slater would call "wealth addicts." These people seek wealth accumulation above all else, and have lost touch with themselves. They have a need to possess primarily to deny others access, in order to gain political power, fame and prestige. They have extraordinarily insecure egos, that are constantly threatened. These folks have successfully rearranged the tax structure of the economy to continue concentrating wealth, and sell this to the poor based on "trickle-down" economic theory.

This dysfunctional worldview survives by reinforcing each other’s fears - such as we are constantly in danger of attack, life is a struggle, we are inadequate unless we buy and own this or that. And, it has become extraordinarily entrenched in the western psyche - we are all amazingly obedient to it. It is supported by media and advertising. Nature is something "out there", to be exploited and feared, not to be worshipped any longer. We humans are living more and more in a world constructed by our minds, and less and less in our bodies. Many of us go through the day never once touching anything natural whatsoever - folks go from their houses, to the garage, drive their car to the office parking garage, take the elevator up to the office, sit in front of computer screens and talk on the phone all day, and repeat the trail every evening - never once touching the actual planet surface.

The pathology of this synthetic existence is evidenced by the growing psychological ills of the times - in essence, we have become strangers on our own home planet. Despite the "high standard of living" we tell ourselves we are enjoying, this is, afterall, the age of anxiety - oppression, stress, schizophrenia, lack of self-esteem (curiously that very thing we have most sought through all of this), malaise, neuroses, suicide, substance abuse, and ultimately, alienation and social isolation. Psychologists have estimated that most of our conscious effort these days is spent in seeking ego-gratification, and reinforcement. Something has gone very wrong with all of this, and the deforestation in the Alaska coastal forest is but one rather poignant manifestation. As we live more and more in our minds, everything else matters less and less. Forests have become mere abstractions that we don’t sense directly anymore, further exposing them to degradation and exploitation.

In the industrial worldview, the forest is no longer considered sacred or alive - simply an exploitable commodity. And Alaska - which had ironically been the first frontier for humanity in the western hemisphere as Asiatic peoples migrated across the Bering Land Bridge about 12,000 years ago - is now one of the last frontiers for the industrial worldview of the 20th century. Modern-day humans seem to love subduing big things - mountains, rivers, forests, oceans. It seems to fulfill our ego desires, perhaps much like our distant ancestors felt esteemed by bringing down the mastodon. As such, Alaska has been a fertile playground for infantile industrial egos seeking to gratify themselves by altering and manipulating the environment on a grand scale.

Another reason that we seem able to sell ourselves on this domination paradigm was that the temporal and spatial scales of our impact on the biosphere have been larger than our evolved primate sensibilities. The clearcutting of the Alaska coastal forest has occurred over decades and over thousands of square miles of land. Thus, someone witnessing this event has only a very limited perception of the whole, cumulative impact. But if the deforestation of the coastal forest had occurred overnight, it would most certainly have been perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe by those observing it.

There is a popular metaphor that illustrates this point of cumulative, yet insensible damage as follows: If one were to place a frog in hot water, the frog - recognizing the obvious life threatening nature of the situation - would immediately jump out. But if one were to place the frog in water of ambient temperature and slowly turn the heat up, the frog wouldn’t notice the problem in time, and would cook to death. In this way, the cumulative destruction of the integrity of the biosphere continues unchecked by successive generations - while we slowly cook to death. The loss of coastal temperate rainforests is but one dramatic example of this phenomenon - others include coastal development, the loss of wetlands throughout the continent, climate alteration, and perhaps the most dramatic - the loss of biological diversity. The present mass extinction event we are not just witnessing but are, indeed, causing, if sensed over a broader scale of time and space - say a century and globally - would be seen by most people as an evolutionary catastrophe on the scale of the other mass extinction events in evolutionary history. That species extinction is not perceived on such a scale virtually assures its persistence. In essence, we are sleepwalking while we destroy paradise.

Our innate ability to adapt to changing conditions, which has been a key to our evolutionary success (at least so far) is perhaps yet another underlying cause that deserves mention. Humans seem to be able to adapt to miserable conditions rapidly - living in a patchwork of clearcuts and second growth forests that once were lush, old-growth forests for instance. It is this very adaptability that allows us to remain comfortable in a significantly degraded environment. As Rene Dubos wrote: humans adapt to "starless skies, treeless arenas, shapeless buildings, tasteless bread, joyless celebrations, spiritless pleasures - to a life without reverence for the past, love for the present, or poetical anticipations of the future"...but that "it is questionable that man can retain his physical and mental health if he loses contact with the natural forces that shaped his biological and mental nature."

Another fundamental reason that this coastal forest has been so degraded is that, until recently, it has literally been out-of-sight and out-of-mind of the American public. The public couldn’t genuinely care about some place they didn’t even know about. But even when and if the general public became aware of the deforestation issue in Alaska, there was precious little outcry from most.

The public has generally seemed willing for the most part to let industry produce the goods and services we all use, expect government to take care of our interests, and to go about life in blissful ignorance of the fact that the consumption we enjoy causes the environmental degradation we detest. Public apathy exerts its influence on deforestation also through abandoning oversight of the timber industry to a handful of government agencies who industry leaders are often able to co-opt or "capture" for their own selfish purposes. In the absence of a well-informed, participatory public, government policy makers and regulators mostly hear from the industry that they are supposed to be regulating. There are at least some hopeful indications, though, that this public apathy toward such things as loss of old-growth forests may be changing.

Finally, lack of creativity and incentives to produce cost-effective alternatives to materials from old-growth forests has also contributed to deforestation. As long as the forest products industry had access to what they considered to be a virtually endless supply of cheap raw material to work with, there has been precious little incentive to find other more environmentally appropriate alternatives - hemp for example.


The constellation of crises faced by humanity at present - ecological, economic, social, spiritual - is so profound and unprecedented that it is bound to precipitate revolutionary change over a very short time scale. As Milbraith writes, "system collapse has a remarkable way of freeing one’s mind from old conceptions." The status quo will go, sooner rather than later. Indeed, out of this global environmental crisis will most likely come a tremendous opportunity to restructure our social and economic systems to sustainable, life-affirming ones. The opportunity to end the destruction of ancient, old-growth forests worldwide will certainly result - the only question is how much will be left.

First, one of the principal solutions to this dysfunctional relationship between humanity and the natural world will have to come from one of the primary perpetrators of the crisis - the world’s religious community. And, there are some hopeful signs that a more environmentally appropriate interpretation of traditional religious teachings may be developing. It is possible that the broad recognition by organized religions that the biosphere is indeed in crisis, and that the institution of religion has to adjust to become part of a solution, may represent the single most significant development of our time.

The World Council of Churches Seventh Assembly in Canberra, 1991, summed-up this historic acknowledgment as follows:
"...we confront two major problems: (a) the worldwide social justice crises and (b) the global ecological crises. Pursuing justice requires us to learn new ways of paying attention to all creation - the land, water, air, all people, plant life, and other living creatures...We want to say as forcefully as we can that social justice for all people and eco-justice for all creation must go together...the earth on which we live is in peril. Creation protests its treatment by human beings. It groans and travails in all its parts. Ecological equilibrium has been severely broken. Through misinterpretation of our faith and through collective and individual misbehavior, we as Christians have participated in the process of destruction..."

In another remarkable document entitled "Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: A Joint Appeal in Religion and Science" signed by many world religious and scientific leaders in 1990, the religious response states:
"We believe the environmental crisis is intrinsically religious. All faith traditions and teachings firmly instruct us to revere and care for the natural world."

This was signed by leaders of a broad array of religious denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Mennonite, Hindu, Onondaga (First Nation’s), Islamic, Haida, Piscataway, and others. If the world’s religions can ordain that the natural world is sacred and must be treated as such, it is possible that we could see a dramatic transformation of our current patriarchal domination over nature - forests included. Perhaps we can return to being "kinder and gentler" citizens of the biosphere. The greatest challenge of our time, of course, is to see if we can begin to transcend the selfish psychological and social behaviors patterned long ago.

Other Solutions

Before this inevitable restructuring of human society mentioned above occurs, other short-term approaches to protect old-growth forests will be needed. These should include the following:

  • Campaign finance reform - limiting the amount of money that can be contributed to candidates would go a long way toward alleviating the selfish reciprocity between timber industrial interests and elected officials.
  • Tax restructuring - to capture real costs of unsustainable deforestation, including erosion, loss of natural capital, loss of fish and wildlife populations, water pollution, etc. An adequate tax structure would provide incentives to purchase wood grown and harvested sustainably, making it very expensive to purchase others.
  • License limitation - restricting the number of entrants into the timber business would reduce the open-access, free-for-all nature of the industry. License limitation and other forms of limited entry have been used successfully in the commercial fishing industry to reduce the "tragedy of the commons" and should be used in the timber industry as well. This would lessen the supply-side demand to cut timber at unsustainable rates.
  • Establish a World Forest Conservation Fund - a $10 - $50 billion fund to purchase conservation easements from forest owners, to be financed from other resource royalties such as oil and minerals. This would be an international version of what the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund was supposed to be.
  • Moratorium on Loss of Old-Growth Forest - an international agreement for No-Further-Loss of the world’s old growth forests needs to be negotiated and instituted at the earliest possible time. As an interim measure, a 10-year moratorium should be enacted to preserve these precious systems while we sort out the necessary economic and political fixes to the problem. This is probably best addressed in the U.N. context.
  • Truth-in-Labeling - labeling forest products as to how they were harvested, where they came from, actual values and costs, environmental impacts, etc.
  • Forest Protection Coalitions - citizen’s coalitions have been particularly effective at stemming the loss of old-growth forests in Alaska and elsewhere. They should be encouraged and funded, at least initially by philanthropic foundations interested in the protection of ancient forests.
  • Forest Education - primarily for young people, but also for policy makers. An important part of this education effort must be actually getting people out into the forest to learn directly from it, as well as traditional media and classroom methods.
  • Use of Science - we should encourage scientific research when necessary, but most importantly, policy makers must be encouraged to act on what we already know. This is perhaps the most fundamental failing of the policy arena to date. Also, policy-makers should rely more heavily on Traditional Ecological Knowledge in addition to conventional science.
  • Reforestation/Restoration - a substantial effort must be launched to restore and reforest those areas damaged throughout the past century.
  • Alternative Product Development - the research and development in new, alternative forest products and silveculture techniques needs to be significantly expanded, coupled with a major global initiative to reduce consumption and waste of forest products.

In conclusion, the degradation and deforestation in the world’s ancient forests is a tragedy of extraordinary proportion - but it can be stopped before much more is lost. The coastal rainforests of Alaska and British Columbia offer the only remaining opportunity to protect large, intact components of the world’s temperate rainforest ecosystem. We will be glad we did.

Deforestation in Alaska’s Coastal Rainforest: Causes and Solutions
by Rick Steiner - University of Alaska

Executive Summary

The Alaska coastal rainforest is part of the largest temperate rainforest on Earth, and is perhaps the most intact. As coastal temperate rainforests are one of the most severely threatened ecosystems in the world, protection of the remaining stands, particularly in Alaska, offer an important conservation opportunity. This study describes the rich ecological characteristics of the forest, and the history of deforestation. Much of the deforestation in the Alaska coastal forest occured as a result of 50-year timber contracts offered by the Forest Service in the 1950s to help develop a pulp industry in southeast, and the Alaska Native corporation logging in both southcentral and southeast Alaska in the past decade. The pulp mill era and the bizarre tax loopholes that encouraged the unsustainable logging on Native lands are described, as is the downturn in the international market for Alaska forest products. The beginnings of forest protection in Alaska are described, particularly the political determinants in Washington. The new era in the Alaska coastal forest appears much more hopeful and sustainable than the past 50 years.

Proximate causes of deforestation in the Alaska coastal forest have been mainly the asian market, and the desire for political power and wealth accumulation. The fundamental causes though, relate to our predisposition toward competitive, selfish inter-relations with others. These underlying causes are bound with our rather primitive psychological and social motivations. The influence of monotheism in the development of the ideology of domination over and disconnection from the natural world is discussed. Solutions discussed include the participation of world religions, and several other short-term approaches - campaign finance reform, tax restructuring, license limitation, a moratorium on loss of old-growth, a $10 billion world forest conservation fund, citizen’s coalitions, alternative product development, and others.

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