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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Modern Alaska
The Environmental Wars Continue

The passage of ANILCA did not end the environmental wars in Alaska. Some parts of the act designed to protect development were more than conservationists could bear. Most important were those regarding the Tongass National Forest in Southeast. Although the Alaska lands act set aside 5.4 million acres of the Tongass Forest as wilderness, it did not change the terms of the 1947 Tongass Timber Act, which mandated that 4.5 billion board feet of timber be made available every ten years no matter what. . It also left in place 50-year contracts for the two pulp mills on the forest. As a trade-off for the 5.4 million acres of wilderness, Congress guaranteed an annual $40 million subsidy for construction of logging roads and other timber sale preparations.

The Tongass Forest contained the last extensive stands of old growth timber in the national forest system. Much of it was available for harvesting under ANILCA. During the 1980s trees in the forest sold for as little as $3 per 1,000 board feet, while timber sold on the open market fetched $200. Much of the timber the pulp mills produced was exported to the Far East. The Sitka mill was Japanese-owned. During the 1980s a new coalition of national environmental groups, headed by the Sierra Club, decided to make the Tongass Forest a national issue. Publication and education were used as the primary weapons. Environmentalists called it the "rainforest campaign."

Tongass Links

The Sierra Club produced a beautiful book on the Tongass, a stunning photographic display of the forest in all of its grandeur.. The Forest Service published several well illustrated bulletins describing the wilderness area of the forest and suggesting how scientific forest management could go along with wilderness protection. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council published a report calling attention to the dismal record of pollution by the pulp mills.. .

The Alaska Loggers Association presented the position of many Alaskans. In a folksy picture of the "working forest,", they defended forest development. They focused on the work histories of individual harvesters and logging operations. People of the Tongass argued that such loggers had a high level of environmental sensitivity and that logging had no environmental impact on the forest, that in fact, the harvest improved the forest's health. The pulp mills and a major sawmill in Wrangell provided hundreds of jobs. Without the industry, many would have to abandon Alaska. By 1989 the battle had become intense. The Sierra Club and others in the coalition had succeeded in making "old growth timber" a national environmental battle cry. Both the House Interior and Agriculture Committees developed bills to rewrite the Tongass provisions in ANILCA. Many Americans agreed with the conservationists, according to newspapers and journals. In hearings, Alaskans stressed how important f the forest cut was for the economic stability of Southeast.. Alaska's Senator Frank Murkowski charged the environmental lobby with conspiracy to use Alaska and the Tongass to build up their memberships,.

Polls in Alaska showed that a majority of people favored cutting the forest. Senators Stevens and Murkowski fought against any revisions of the law, and press reports suggested support for their position. . Though Stevens and Murkowski were able to delay the bill, as Stevens said later, the pressure was simply too great to defeat it.

The final bill, the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 kept the 50-year contracts,. but ended the annual $40 million special appropriation for lease sales , and removed the 4.5 billion board feet a decade harvest target. The Forest Service was directed to sell logs at a profitable price. The act protected an extra one million acres of the 16.7 million acre forest from timber cutting, naming 300,000 acres of that as wilderness. The wilderness protected the last stands of virgin old growth timber in the United States.

The reform act brought much greater environmental protection to the Tongass Forest. But its economic consequences were serious. On July 1, 1993, the Sitka mill, owned and operated by Alaska Lumber and Pulp, stopped operation and closed. Four hundred people lost their jobs. At first mill owners blamed the closure on Forest Service changes in the 50-year contracts. But what the Forest Service had demanded was that the mill obey tighter environmental restrictions in harvesting timber, and in the operation of the mill. The mill was a chronic polluter. Disputes between Alaska Pulp and federal regulators over the amount of pollutants dumped by the mill reached back to the 1970s. The company had already paid penalties totaling $721,500, and signed an order promising to stop polluting. In 1986 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had threatened to close the mill if the pollution did not stop. But 1990 records showed that ALP had continued illegal discharges within a month of signing the order. Soon after the reform act passed, the EPA cited the mill again, and levied a $1.27 million fine. The EPA demanded several design changes at the mill, and the installation of expensive scrubbing equipment. Mill owners decided not to comply. Instead, they closed the mill.

The scene was repeated at Ketchikan, where, on September 30, 1997, Louisiana Pacific Corporation decided to close its mill rather than spend an estimated $200 million to improve the plant to make it pollution-free. LPC played hardball. Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski held hearings with his Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the situation at the mill. The company demanded a bill with conditions for marketing timberbelow market pricesas a guarantee to continue operations . The demand was unreasonable; Murkowski could not go back and ask Congress to undo the reform act. LPC shut down its operation.

Murkowski was able to direct $110 million in federal funds over four years to offset timber job losses in both Sitka and Ketchikan. In both communities the state provided funds for job training and counseling and eventually both communities were able to weather the economic hard times.

For Alaskans committed to development, the Tongass Timber Reform Act was a defeat. Passage of the act probably speeded up the closure of the mills. The owners understood how much support there was for the bill, the idea of wilderness and for the firm enforcement of environmental laws. Once again, Alaskans had misjudged the strength of the national commitment to environmental values.

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