07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Tongass and the Battle for the Last Great Trees

While all eyes are turned to oil and gas development, and offshore drilling, another resource management drama is unfolding out of the national spotlight. The resources are trees and land, and the conflict is brewing between the federal government, a for-profit Alaska Native corporation and the residents in and around the Tongass National Forest. The largest national forest in the U.S., the Tongass, will never be seen by most Americans, but it contains the last significant stands of old growth virgin forest in the nation. The question of what to do with it, how to manage it, and if the last remaining land to be taken can be renegotiated and "cherry picked" for the best timber is ripping apart communities in Southeast Alaska.

At least 354,000 acres of the Tongass are surrounded by public forest land, but are in private ownership to the Sealaska native regional corporation, one of many corporations created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The corporation can use the land however it sees fit, with or without regard to the ecosystems, and human residents of the region.

Sarah Red-Laird grew up in Southeast Alaska, and 
will graduate this spring with a degree from the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation in Resource Conservation. She's a former resident of Hollis, Ketchikan, and Skagway, Alaska. Her father is a former logger who now runs a guiding business based in the Tongass National Forest.

~Sarah Red-Laird, logger's daughter

By Sarah Red-Laird

As I was growing up in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the timber industry was booming. Around where we lived, on Prince of Wales Island, it seemed like there was an endless supply of trees and money, and people were happy.

I remember loggers from the community coming to Hollis School's bake sales and dropping one hundred and fifty bucks on Cathy's pineapple upside down cake.

I also have heard stories from my friends and former Fo'c'sel Bar tenders about sweeping up hundred dollar bills from below the bar stools back then. They would just fall out of the stuffed pockets and wallets of the men, who were too lit to really care or notice.

Being a logger's daughter in the 1980s on POW (as we call Prince of Wales Island) was fun. Hollis was a great community, and those were good times. My step-mom always says, "Southeast Alaska is a very small town."

The small town, tight-knit community feeling is a unique aspect to life in the largest National Forest in America. Tensions have been growing, however, since the end of the logging boom. And they're getting worse because of legislation our congressional delegation wants to pass.

The bills in question, S881 and HR 2099, will give a private corporation the right to take some of the most valuable forest and recreation lands from the Tongass, including sites filled with majestic trees that are hundreds of years old. The bills do that by changing land selection rules that were set long ago, in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

The settlement act gave Native-owned corporations, including Sealaska, the right to select acreage from the Tongass National Forest for private ownership. Sealaska has already received 80% of the land it's entitled to get. As a profit-making business, it naturally selected prime stands of old-growth forest for logging. Sealaska then proceeded to clearcut those lands at an unsustainable rate. It has only about two years of profitable timber supply left.

Sealaska has identified the remaining 20% of land it would take if it has to follow existing rules set by the 1971 land settlement act.

There is no reason Sealaska cannot get that last 20% of its land, and get it fairly quickly. (Congress passed a law in 2004 to speed up the remaining land transfers for Native corporations.) Alaska Natives should have rights to land to manage for the welfare of their people.

For the remainder of their selections, however, Sealaska does not want to stick to the existing rules. It wants to pick more valuable old-growth forest land and recreation sites from locations all throughout the Tongass. We call that "cherry-picking the good stuff." Their attempt to do this, with help from political leaders who are supposed to represent all of us, is already causing more unnecessary conflict.

Southeast is moving on from the "good ol' days" of the timber boom. Being such a resilient community, the residents have been able to see the forest as useful in different ways. Restoration projects, fishing and hunting guiding opportunities, small timber operations, mom and pop saw mills, and eco-tours are bringing a sustainable income to Southeast.

Intact forests also support abundant fish and wildlife, which in turn sustain unique and amazing recreation opportunities for locals and visitors, and also support traditional ways of life that are so important to local communities. Allowing Sealaska to have at it, doing more clearcutting and slapping up "Private Property" signs, would be a tragedy.

This harmful legislation has come during a time of collaboration in Southeast Alaska, and is threatening years of work among diverse stakeholders to agree on a new vision for managing the Tongass, one that doesn't rely on logging irreplaceable old-growth forest.

With groups such as the Tongass Futures Roundtable and watershed councils scattered around Southeast, many communities were beginning to feel empowered by the opportunity for a say in the future of their forest. This collaborative process includes members from Native Alaskan communities and the Sealaska Corp.

Sealaska's legislation throws this collaborative process, and all the progress that has been made, right out the window. Instead, we are seeing closed-door meetings between Sealaska, conservation organizations, and other groups.

Recent wheeling and dealing steered land selections from North Prince of Wales and Edna Bay area to their Hollis area neighbors, which broke the hearts and the patience of Hollis residents.

Southeast Alaska has been going through a turbulent transition these last couple of decades. Unable to rely primarily on timber extraction money, communities and their people have had to re-invent themselves and their livelihoods. This is OK, as life is dynamic and gives us multiple chances to change course to a more positive direction.

I have faith that Southeast residents value old growth and healthy second growth forests for the subsistence, recreation, and business opportunities, and will not allow this legislation to pass. If it does, it will only be the beginning of a long, painful, and divisive process for Southeast Alaska.