Boreal forest covers much of central Alaska. Taiga, as this forest is called, is composed of dense black spruce forests and a mosaic of other forest trees. Aspen and birch thrive on south-facing hillsides. The larger rivers support significant stands of white spruce. Ponds, swamps and bogs are interspersed with meadows and small lakes. These seemingly endless stretches of small trees are difficult to navigate on foot, thus travel in these boreal forest is minimal.
Most of the taiga in Alaska is left unmolested, at least in the summer months. Solitary trappers poke trails into some remote sections in search of marten during the winter months, but with the dismal demand for furs, trappers are a disappearing breed.
A few years back, I flew over a section of the Canadian taiga north and east of Whitehorse. One hundred miles out from anywhere, a narrow cut in the black spruce appeared. The trail was an instant magnet. Thirty minutes of Super Cub time brought me to the end of that trail at a large lake. There was no cabin. Intrigued, I followed the trail back; this time there was a tiny cabin on the edge of a creek. The name of the trapper was never discovered, but this guy was way, way out there.
The North American taiga covers more than 2.3 million square miles, an area larger than the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. This huge area is largely ignored in Alaska, but it is a different story in Canada. Much of the Canadian taiga area is being logged. Saw logs are found by the river systems, but most of the cutting is done for pulpwood. Toilet paper, catalogs and the advertisement flyers we throw away account for most of the pulp. Americans are the biggest consumers of these products.
Yes, we all use these products, but there is a cost. About 60% of the North American bird population found north of the Mexican border nests in the boreal forest. More than 300 bird species breed there. Most of these birds make their homes near water sources: lakes, small creeks and beaver ponds. Boreal chickadees, gray jays, great gray owls and black-backed woodpeckers are among the few who make their homes deep in the black spruce.
In June 1975, I took a two-week walk into the upper reaches of the Ungalik River, just north of Shaktoolik. The silence of that forest was surreal. Chickadees and jays seemed to be the only life. Monotonous hills followed one another endlessly. The Native folk in the coastal villages thought the area was haunted. One could see why.
People look at these huge tracts of seemingly unusable landscape and quickly turn to more diverse and interesting locales. Yet, there is an attraction to the “silence that bludgeons you dumb.” This wilderness. Look around you; there are few wild lands remaining. There is an oil well here and a gold mine there. The state of Alaska seems to be leaning heavily toward development around the state, the proposed Ambler road project being one example.
The argument for development is valid. There are vast tracts of land in our state that are unused. Development of resources provides jobs. A road, a mine … what do they hurt? There is no physical harm. Those opposed to this type of development reason that this may harm the caribou herd, or that the state should not spend millions of dollars on what is essentially a private road.
Those arguments are valid also. The harm outlined and the benefits touted may not be the issue here. The question we need to answer, as public stewards of our lands, is this: How important is true wilderness? How does one define wilderness? Is it an area that is little-used, or used not as all?
Boreal forests are the last true wild areas in Alaska. Should we actively strive to save them from future development? Or — do we assume that there will be little impact, under any circumstance, because of their remoteness? Are the products and value derived from utilization more important to our society than the antipathy at finding a plastic bag fluttering from the branch of a black spruce a hundred miles north of nowhere?