If you've picked up a book on the Tongass or timber or even just Southeast Alaska, the story of the trees of Prince of Wales Island is probably one with which you're familiar. But even for an outsider, the story would be hard to miss, as the history of this island has been carved into its mountainsides. One does not need to have spent much time there to recognize: this land and logging have intimately known one another.
Traveling around the island by plane, car, and boat this past week, I saw before me a history etched in wood, a past laid bare by the felled trunks which often seemed to outnumber standing trees. But while I saw many scarred mountainsides on Prince of Wales Island, I also felt hope – hope that the manner by which this land was logged can serve a cautionary tale; function as an instructive story of misuse; and issue a warning – and wake-up call – to present and future generations of the costs we all pay when an unrenewable resource such as old-growth forest suffers reckless abuse as opposed to measured use.
It was beginning in the 1950s that many of the old-growth stands of the island began meeting with the former fate, logged swiftly and carelessly to provide raw material for the newly built pulp mill in Ketchikan. Flying over the forest in 1954, Art Brooks, logging manager for the Ketchikan Pulp Co., was to exclaim, "As far as the eye could see there were trees, trees, trees…nearly all virgin timber." That is no longer the case. Of the 140 by 45 mile island, only a few places have been spared the saw. I was lucky enough to visit one of them, the southern tip of the island, this past week.
For eight days, I, along with a group representing SCS, SEACC, the U.S. Forest Service, and HCA (the Hydaburg Cooperative Association), traveled around South Prince of Wales Wilderness, one of the most remote wilderness areas that Southeast Alaska has to offer, monitoring visitor use patterns. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch sight of whales and bears, watch the wonder that is salmon swimming upstream, be shown around an abandoned Haida village, and stand in the presence of trees hundreds – if not thousands – of years old. And aware of the past of this place, the contentious story of this space, I did not take getting to gaze at these ancient trees lightly. Knowing that this land has been a battleground for environmentalists for over half a century, that these forests are standing due to the hard work of many defenders, I felt privileged to be in their presence. But mindful that their present preservation was no guarantee of future conservation – the Big Thorne timber sale further north on the island standing as a testament to as much – I also began thinking about my own role to be had in speaking for these trees.
A few days before heading out on this trip, I had been having a conversation with someone who, when my job with the conservation society came up, laughed and said, "Oh, so you're part of the cult." When I asked what he meant, he spoke fairly disparagingly of environmentalism in general, asserting that environmentalists rarely understood their own agendas, merely mindlessly subscribing to whatever mentality happened to be dominant within conservationist circles at the time. Although initially affronted, I am, in retrospect, thankful for the encounter, as it reminded me that it's only when our beliefs are challenged that we take the time to reexamine, analyze, and crystallize them. As so, thinking of my parents soon flying into Sitka for a visit, and the many times as a kid they had read The Lorax aloud to me, I set out to articulate exactly what speaking for the trees means to me with regard to the Tongass National Forest.
And after having spent a week out in the wilderness, observing the natural connections that govern life in the Tongass, it becomes immediately apparent that just as with Dr. Seuss' Truffula trees, speaking for the spruce, hemlock, and cedar of Southeast Alaska involves speaking for a lot more. It's speaking for the salmon we saw jumping upriver, who rely on the trees for the enrichment and stabilization of their spawning streams. It's speaking for the deer we saw foraging on shore, who make their homes and secure their food under the cover of these trees' canopy. It's speaking for the bears we saw catching salmon, who depend on the forest to protect their food source of fish and fawns. It's speaking for the eagles we saw flying overhead, who make their nests and raise their young in the trees. And it's speaking for the people who catch those fish, hunt those deer, and enjoy the multiple other uses to which wilderness can be put. We are all intricately connected. It may be important at times to see the forest for the trees, but it is just as important to sometimes, both literally and figuratively, see the individual trees as well – see all the organisms and associations that make up the forest and appreciate that the parts are, indeed, what make up the whole, and if we misuse one, we endanger them all.
In its message of interconnectedness and warning against environmental abuse, Dr. Seuss' fable of the Truffula trees thus seems perfectly able to translate to the Tongass. There is only one point on which I might challenge him: having seen them, having stood in their presence and felt the reverence, awe, and humility they are able to inspire, in some ways, it seems, the trees of Southeast can also speak for themselves.
If you're interested in hearing more about our work, or are looking to get involved with wilderness stewardship and the preservation of our wild places, be sure to check out SCS's wilderness page here.Thanks and photo credit goes out to Luke A'Bear, one of the SCS participants, who was amazing at taking photos out on the trip. The Lorax image remains the property of Dr. Seuss.