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Erring on the side of keeping every cog and wheel in the Tongass

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 15
  • Published November 15

FILE - This 1990 aerial file photo, shows a section of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska that has patches of bare land where clear-cutting has occurred. The U.S. Forest Service announced plans Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, to lift restrictions on road building and logging in Tongass National Forest, a largely pristine rainforest in southeast Alaska that provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon. Conservation groups vowed to fight the decision. (Hall Anderson/Ketchikan Daily News via AP, File)

“When in doubt, my rule of thumb is to err on the side of understatement.” By the time John Schoen admits that, you are well more than halfway through his book. If the scientific findings and political struggles he describes are an understatement, then Southeast Alaska is in a world of hurt.

But Schoen wants you to know that Alaska’s Tongass National Forest can still be saved. He has written a book about his career studying deer, mountain goats, and bears in Southeast Alaska – and his second career trying to protect their unique rainforest habitats from overzealous logging. Schoen has thrown down the gauntlet, and the best way to understand the challenge, and his unequivocal optimism, is to read his book, “Tongass Odyssey: Seeing the Forest Ecosystem through the Politics of Trees – A Biologist’s Memoir.”

Schoen was hired by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a wildlife biologist in 1977. Way back then conventional wisdom suggested that clearcutting spurred a burst of vegetation that helped deer and other wildlife. Unfortunately, by the time professional biologists began studying wildlife ecology, there were very few old-growth forests left in the United States. The Tongass was still largely intact, but the timber industry, aided and abetted by the U.S. Forest Service, was trying its best to catch up with the rest of the country.

Schoen’s research demonstrated that unchecked logging had dire consequences. Natural openings in old-growth forests allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, encouraging luxurious undergrowth required by Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and brown bears. In contrast, clearcut forests sprouted dense thickets of even-aged conifers that blocked sunlight. Replacing a mature forest in Southeast Alaska takes 200-300 years.

For 50 years, logging in the Tongass had concentrated on the most productive habitats. Unsurprisingly, places that grow lots of big trees are also productive fish and wildlife habitats. Thus, while it is true that most of the Tongass remains unlogged, logging has had a disproportionate impact on the most productive watersheds and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.

Schoen worked for Fish and Game for 20 years. During that time he received an ad hoc post-doctoral education in the politics of wildlife conservation. The logging industry and the Forest Service were not amused by his research and fought him at every step. Schoen eventually moved on to supervisory roles that kept him desk-bound. After retirement, he accepted a nongovernmental position as senior scientist with Audubon Alaska, where he worked another 15 years.

Audubon Alaska needed a senior scientist because it had established a reputation as a fact-based environmental organization. Schoen took its scientific dedication to a new level by re-engaging with various Forest Service plans for logging the Tongass. Long before he left Fish and Game, other scientists had begun accumulating information on the adverse effects of logging on other mammals, birds and fish in Southeast Alaska. Schoen compiled this information and seasoned it with his familiarity of Southeast Alaska habitats to develop maps that clearly depicted the most productive habitats. He was doing the broader ecological work that the Forest Service should have done, but hadn’t. According to his maps, logging wasn’t just reducing populations of mammals and birds important to subsistence and sport hunters, it was affecting salmon populations, one of the economic mainstays of Southeast Alaska.

Most scientists try, with mixed success, to turn over pieces of the existential puzzle. Only the most dedicated embark upon another career to fit their pieces with others in order to come up with a more complete picture. Even fewer try to explain what they’ve found in terms we all can understand. Schoen has always played the long game, believing as his precursor, Aldo Leopold, wrote about the natural environment, that “… every part is good, whether we understand it or not … To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Email him: rickjsinnott@gmail.com

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