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Photos: Tongass logging proposal ‘fatally flawed’ according to Alaskan biologist

A state biologist has labeled a logging proposal to hand over 80,000 acres of the Tongass temperate rainforest to Sealaska, a company with a poor environmental record, ‘fatally flawed’. In a letter obtained by, Jack Gustafson, who worked for over 17 years as a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, argues that the bill will be destructive both to the environment and local economy.

“Unfortunately, the basic premise given as the reason for introducing your bill is fatally flawed, and needs to be seriously reconsidered by you and your staff before wasting the time of the Energy Committee and the rest of Congress regarding this misguided legislation,” writes Gustafson to Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is pushing the bill in question.

The bill SB 881 is a proposal to give 80,000 acres of prime temperate rainforest—55 percent (43,695 acres) of which is old growth—to Sealaksa for logging. Owned by indigenous communities, Sealaska and Murkowski argue that the 80,000 acres is apart of land promised them by the federal government. However, the logging company is already the largest landowner in Southeast Alaska with over 290,000 acres of land.

Stream in the Tongass National Forest. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

“I do not believe Sealaska was in any way short-changed, ‘boxed-in’, or unfairly treated by receiving the extremely productive lands they have already cherry-picked from the Tongass,” Gustafson writes, adding later that “in reality [Sealaksa has] already received an abundance of some of the most valuable and productive lands in SE Alaska, with more land transfers to occur, in spite of what happens regarding SB 881.”

According to locals logging in proposed areas presents a number of problems. Even amid the unique ecosystems of the Tongass—the largest temperate rainforest in the world—the acreage slated for logging is special: made up largely of ecologically-sensitive and rare karst limestone forests. In addition the area is home to two endangered subspecies: the Alexander Archipelago wolf and the Queen Charlotte goshawk. If logging occurs the protection of these species could fall under the Endangered Species Act setting up future battles in the courts.

Local communities are also concerned about the economic impact for them if the logging goes ahead. Historically these communities were based on clear-cut logging; however, they have since made the transition to adventure and eco-tourism. If they lose adjacent forests, much of the economy will collapse according to local sources. In addition, Sealaska’s environmental record has not instilled confidence, despite the company saying it will change its ways and practice sustainable logging.

“How much consideration have you given to Sealaska’s previous environmental record and credibility?” Gustafson asks in his letter to Senator Murkowski. “In the opinion of many, the net result of Sealaska’s overly powerful influence has already irreversibly and irresponsibly damaged important resources and dimmed certain economic opportunities for SE Alaska.”

Islands in Southeast Alaska. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

According to local activist, Roger DiPaola, Sealaksa has already unsustainably clear-cut 80 percent of the land handed over to them by the federal government. Sealaska also opted to leave local mills out of its process and instead has a history of exporting ’round logs’ directly to Asian markets to fetch high prices.

“My assessment is that this legislation, if passed, would result in significant undesirable and permanent biological, economic, and social consequences. This is unfair special-interest legislation that will damage land management plans, wildlife resources, Alaska’s southeastern economy and the general populace in numerous and unpredictable ways. In a way, it is a ‘bail-out’ for problems that Sealaska created for itself, and it comes at a great expense to the government and the public interest,” concludes Gustafson.

Gustafson warns that if the bill becomes attached to a larger Omnibus land bill, which one local referred to as a ‘worst nightmare’, Senator Murkowski could pay for it in the voting booth.

“I am certain that many of your constituents will remember it during the next election; surely the extinction of any one politician’s political career would be preferable to the extinction of any of Alaska’s wildlife,” Gustafson writes.

Local activists say the best way to stop SB 881 is to contact New Mexico Senator Bingaman since he is the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In addition, the organization Alaska Wilderness League has an Action Alert on the issue.

View of Edna Bay overlooking Entrance Island. Edna Bay faces logging under the current bill. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

Alaska’s state flower: forget-me-not in the Tongass forest. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

Newt in the Tongass forest. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

Fiddlehead fern growing on the forest floor of the Tongass. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

White flower growing on muskeg soil. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

Mountain peak in the Tongass forest. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

Moonlit night on the Tongass forest. Photo by: Tyler Poelstra.

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