THE BLOG
01/31/2017 02:16 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2018

Protecting Alaska's Old Growth Rainforest

One of the benefits of living in Alaska is that the rest of the country tends to forget about you. The frozen north, may they remain happy while gnawing on whale.

While many here in the southeastern panhandle of the state wish this trend to continue with our current president, there are signs that it will not be so. (One of these being our Women's March was photographed in the New York Times. Uh-oh.) So far, the only thing stopping Trump from signing executive orders (he's already signed four) seems to be a stuck pen cap.

Which is concerning because the country's largest national forest, and the world's most expansive temperate rainforest, could be next on the chopping block. (I killed a chicken this morning so chopping blocks happen to be on my mind.) This past December the Forest Service announced a move away from clearcutting. However, the incoming congress, along with the Alaska delegation, led by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, has threatened to undo the move, characterizing it as a last-minute Obama environmental land-grab.

This could not be farther from the truth.

*

At the age of 19 I left New York City for Alaska, where I found work at a salmon hatchery in Sitka, a fishing village on the edge of the Tongass. After a few months in an efficiency apartment I went into the woods - 17 million acres of it surrounding town - where I spent almost a year. First in a tent, a North Face VE-25, which I quickly burnt down while priming a stove. Then in a hut built from Sitka Spruce.

When I wasn't working at the hatchery, I wandered the maze of old growth hemlocks and spruce spared by the axes of the Russians. Inspired by the trees - and my clunky shelter-building - I joined Alaska's carpentry union. Today I live in Sitka, raising my family, and renovating our World War II tugboat. At the moment a buddy and I are milling up a wind-felled Alaska yellow cedar for caprails.

In 2010, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack directed the Forest Service to speed the transition away from cutting old-growth timber in these sames woods where I lived. The Tongass Advisory Committee was conceived, comprised of representatives from Southeast's timber industry, tribal organizations, and conservation groups. The "Cut Kill Dig Drill" crowd put aside their caulks and chainsaws to sit at the table with "the crunchies" - not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they were sick of costly litigation plaguing every timber sale. Environmentalists, for their part, sucked in their stomachs and put twenty thousand acres of old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar on the chopping block - mostly on Prince of Wales Island, where scant old growth remains - in exchange for protection of other old-growth sections. The Forest Service dutifully sifted through more than a quarter million public comments from Alaska and the Lower 48 - mine being one of them - before approving the new land management plan.

The plan allows Alaskans access to wood in our own backyard, while shielding pristine old growth where we harvest deer each year (most people who live on our island depend on subsistence hunting and fishing - milk costs eight dollars a half-gallon). Streams and watersheds in some of the last wild salmon habitat in the world will be sealed off in perpetua. It advances logging practices already being practiced by local companies - young growth harvested for shipwrights replanking boats (I just spent a month repairing my tug with local yellow cedar) as well as timber framing, artisan woodwork, and other innovative practices that don't involve sending our trees out of the country.

Donald Trump's election has brought a renewed sense of optimism to the timber industry - especially old school timber interests nostalgic for the glory days of the timber boom-time.

It shouldn't.

Old growth logging represents just the sort of industry - heavily subsidized by the federal government - Trump tweets against. As well as not being profitable, and costing taxpayers millions, logging damages other working-class jobs - while salmon fishing brings 6,500 jobs to Southeast Alaska, including my own, the timber industry offers 320. Fishing is a billion dollar industry, with tourism close behind. Logging puts both at risk by destroying salmon habitat, as well as the picture-perfect mountainsides hiked and photographed by visitors.

Perhaps less exciting to the President-elect - but no less important - wildlife in the forest has been shown to be linked directly to old growth, including bald eagles, the Alexander Archipelago wolf, and the largest brown bear population in the country.

Timber West, a pro-logging publication, recently ran a complimentary article on Gordon Chew, who, along with his wife and two children, runs the Tenakee Logging Company in Tenakee Springs, a town of 200, just north of Sitka. Chew's company supplies woods to high-end local artists, as well as to shipwrights working on fishing boats. (I just spent a month in the boat yard using local yellow cedar to repair the planking on my tugboat.)

Tenakee Logging prides itself on harvesting local lumber, and refusing to clearcut. This makes sense, considering that, unlike representatives from larger export-based timber companies intent on scything mountainsides for profit, Chew lives in Alaska. "There is no debate about the exportation of clear-cut round logs overseas. It is a failed policy that isn't good for Alaska."

We are on the brink of a good, timely move in the timber industry, one that will keep our resources, and our jobs, in this country, keep folks like Chew and his family working, and allow my daughters to know what it's like to stand in the shade of majestic spruce and hemlock as I once did. Rather than supporting local loggers, and the thousands that helped develop the new forest plan, the Alaska delegation (and perhaps Donald Trump) wants to continue shipping our country's natural resources overseas at taxpayer expense.

Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan showed encouraging backbone when they stood up to Trump during the election. Let's hope they continue to listen to their own constituents. If they don't, they prove themselves to be occupying just another corner of that swamp so many Americans voted to drain.