The moss-covered floor of a northern rainforest.
PACIFIC TREASURE: TNC’s Emerald Edge program seeks to protect a vast swath of the coastal rainforest system from northern Washington to the Tongass, which includes most of Southeast Alaska. © Chris Crisman

Magazine Articles

The Emerald Edge

Alaska's Tongass National Forest is the crown of the 100-million acre Emerald Edge—the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.

February/March 2016

Brendan Borrell Freelance Writer


A 47,000-pound steel claw painted fire-engine red hunches on the edge of Thorne Bay, looking like something that fell from a spaceship into this remote, forested cove on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. But locals don’t blink when they drive past “The Claw,” once one of the largest logging grapples in the world. They remember when its massive pincers hoisted bundles of 5-ton logs into the water like so many matchsticks. During the logging boom from the late 1950s through the ’90s, Sitka spruce that had towered over the island’s salmon streams since long before Europeans arrived on the continent were shredded in Ketchikan and dissolved into paper pulp.

Prince of Wales is part of the Tongass National Forest, which stretches across the 500-mile ribbon of land and maze of islands that constitute the Alaskan panhandle. It’s a wild, magical place, where glacier-fed waterfalls splash into fogshrouded fjords frequented by humpback whales and orcas. Black bears and coastal brown bears feast on five species of salmon, including king, sockeye and coho. Bald eagles seem as common here as pigeons in New York City, and the endangered marbled murrelet, an adorably chubby little seabird, builds its mossy nests in the oldest, largest trees.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Tongass, named after a Tlingit Indian clan and established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, was too isolated and undeveloped to be worth logging on a large scale. But after World War II, Congress jump-started the timber industry with the Tongass Timber Act, which helped establish pulp mills and subsidized the building of roads and other infrastructure. The Forest Service surveyed and sold off tracts of timber to the highest bidder, even though that frequently meant selling at a dramatic loss. By 2004, a few years after The Nature Conservancy launched its Southeast Alaska program, some 40 percent of the most ecologically valuable old-growth habitat in the Tongass had been logged.

Greg Boyd, now 60, moved out here in 1983 in search of adventure. He had worked as a logger in northern Michigan and dreamed of doing the same in Alaska. But, he says, “I wimped out as soon as I got up here and saw what the deal was: the size of the trees, the topography.” Instead of taking up the risky work of logging trees that can reach heights over 180 feet, he decided to get into the insurance business.

Tongass Rainforest Salmon
LOCAL CATCH: Southeast Alaska’s rural communities rely on the Tongass’ abundant rivers and streams as a natural pantry. Residents each consume an average of 75 pounds of salmon per year. © Chris Crisman

It was a smart move. Old-growth timber was getting scarce and clear-cutting regulations had grown stricter, which meant the profit margins were slimmer. The Claw was retired in 1994, and the pulp mill shut down a few years later. The slender, second-growth trees that grew back in the forest gaps had little value, and without thinning, these stands often grew so dark and dense that the understory became as ecologically barren as a cave.

But Boyd never forgot what drew him to Alaska in the first place, and in 2012, he became co-owner of one of the last sawmills on the island. Good Faith Lumber, just up the road from Thorne Bay, was a small mill with a big advantage: two kilns. Kiln-dried wood can be cut with precision, enabling the mill to manufacture high-value retail products like beveled cedar siding. It also had a four-sided planer to cut wood into rounded D-log siding—the kind used to build cabins—and into tongue-and-groove boards used for interior paneling.

From the Conservancy’s perspective, small sawmills like Good Faith point the way to the next chapter for Tongass. Developing new, high-value products out of second-growth timber could keep people employed in the industry and help restore forests by thinning dense stands—all while reducing economic pressure to log old-growth, says David Albert, the Conservancy’s Alaska chapter director for conservation science. “We want to protect the last, best remaining temperate rainforest watersheds on Earth but also provide economic stability to communities,” he says. Wholesale logging is no longer the backbone of communities like Thorne Bay, and new, greener enterprises are emerging with the Conservancy’s help.

Tongass Totem Pole Tradition
SHAPED BY TRADITION: Hydaburg resident Sonny Peele works on a new pole for the community totem park. The village hosts an annual cultural festival that celebrates Native traditions such as totem carving. © Chris Crisman

Because the Tongass covers 16.8 million acres, an area roughly the size of West Virginia, the forest once seemed inexhaustible. In fact, almost half of the region is not forest at all, but rock, ice, water and a boggy type of land known as muskeg. Of the remaining forestland outside federally protected wilderness areas, such as on Admiralty Island National Monument, logging operations targeted fertile floodplains, which support miles and miles of giant trees. In addition to Sitka spruce, this temperate rainforest is richly arrayed in western hemlock, western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar.

But those loggable areas, which amount to just a fraction of the Tongass—only 600,000 acres—also happen to provide some of the greatest values in terms of conservation: winter refuge for the Sitka black-tailed deer, nesting sites for marbled murrelets, and healthy streams for spawning salmon and steelhead trout. According to research Albert published in 2013 in the journal Conservation Biology, two-thirds of these prime forests have already been cleared. On northern Prince of Wales Island, the number is as high as 94 percent. “It’s like we’ve taken out the heart of the forest,” Albert says.

Even though many old-timers look back fondly to their wild nights at the Fo’c’s’le, a Ketchikan bar that served as a dispatch for the storied logging camps, they also recognize the toll they took on the land. “My job was to get as many board feet in a day as I could,” says Dick Wilson, who set the “chokers” used to lift logs in the 1960s and ’70s. “I just wished the resource could have been managed more wisely.” Wilson, who has a fused ankle from a logging injury, is still stung by the memory of his work in the headwaters of a creek near El Capitan Cave on Prince of Wales Island. “You could just about watch that creek dry up as we logged it,” he says. “Shortly after that, we watched thousands of fish die right at the mouth.”

By the early 2000s, many of the 73,000 people who called Southeast Alaska home had begun to recognize that the economic benefits of their forests went beyond the price of logs. The economy had become dominated by tourism and salmon fishing, which each bring in roughly $1 billion a year. Fisheries biologists have recorded 15,764 miles of salmon streams in the Tongass, and these streams are responsible for about 28 percent of Alaska’s annual commercial salmon catch, or about 49 million salmon annually. “The Tongass is America’s salmon forest,” Albert says. “The salmon connect people because they are something that we all value and we all share.”

Recognizing the need to protect this resource, the Conservancy partnered with the federal government to help the Tongass transition away from old-growth timber. A watershed moment came in July 2013, when Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, issued a memorandum stating that over the next 10 to 15 years, most of the timber sold by the Forest Service in the Tongass would transition to young-growth. “This strategy,” he wrote, “will maintain and restore the Forest’s clean water, abundant fish, healthy populations of wildlife, and scenic beauty while sustaining deep-rooted community and cultural ties to the land and providing jobs in the woods.”

To foster the growth of sustainable businesses in Southeast Alaska, the Conservancy has invested $1.25 million in the Haa Aaní Community Development Fund, using donations from the Dobberpuhl family and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The investment will support a revolving loan fund for enterprises such as tourism, commercial fishing, mariculture, and stream and forest restoration. The Conservancy also helped set up an annual contest, called Path to Prosperity, that provides grants to sustainable start-ups.

Tony Christianson yanks the starter rope of the outboard motor of his beat-up skiff. Then he does it again. And again. Finally, the motor roars to life. “This is my rez canoe!” he hollers over the din of the engine. “I got to stay Indian.”

Christianson, a big, radiant man, is the mayor and resident goofball of Hydaburg, a native village on Prince of Wales Island. He bought this boat at an auction for $700 after the company selling it deemed it “unseaworthy,” and he’s proud of keeping it going. He’s clearly proud of this place, too. As he takes a seat on the weathered board across the hull that serves as a bench, he proclaims, “This is Haida country!”

It’s a crisp, blue-sky day as he putters through a skinny arm of saltwater to the Hetta Lake watershed, a sockeye salmon run that supplies the tribe with much of the subsistence fish catch families are entitled to take for themselves under federal law. Despite some scars from clear-cuts and resulting landslides on the steep coastal slopes surrounding Hydaburg, this place still feels rugged and untamed. “I tried living in the city once, and I needed to come back home,” Christianson says. “You can’t eat nothing off the ground there!” He pretends to honk a horn on the boat’s steering wheel and swerves to the right as if passing a car. “Move it, buddy!” he shouts across the water to no one at all.

Christianson’s humor and good nature have been a breath of fresh air for a village that has struggled with unemployment and alcohol and drug abuse. Although such problems are not exclusive to native communities, Christianson attributes some of them to the money that his parents’ generation received following the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It caused people to “drive blindly down an economic path we knew nothing about,” he says. Unlike many tribes in the Lower 48 who live on reservations, Haida tribal members received shares in both their village corporation and one of a dozen regional corporations, which together control about 44 million acres of land across the state, and continue to receive dividends from logging, mining, oil development and other activities.

Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska regional corporation, is the second-largest landowner on Prince of Wales Island, after the Forest Service. Its stands of old-growth include the headwaters that supply Hydaburg with its drinking water and the forested land around Hetta Lake. In 2010, many residents of Hydaburg grew concerned when they learned that Sealaska had started surveying those areas for potential logging operations. Christianson rallied the community, which included longshoremen who would benefit from logging, and secured a town meeting with Sealaska’s board of directors. “We’re not opposed to logging, just logging in these two watersheds,” Christianson told them. For the time being, Sealaska has agreed to put its logging plans on hold while a broader discussion about watershed management continues. It has also donated some massive old-growth logs to Hydaburg, for use by carvers who are working to replace the town’s decaying, century-old totem poles.

After pulling the boat up to the beach, Christianson charges up the steps to a field station the tribe has set up downstream from Hetta Lake. A metal fish weir funnels ascending salmon into a trap so they can be counted and released upstream by a rotating crew that spends several days at a time out here in the rainforest. It has been a hot, dry year, and as of early July, the crew has counted only 99 sockeye—a dismal sign. During most years, they would already have counted 500 or 1,000, says Christianson.

“What’s hanging off that tree?” he asks, noticing a piece of white fabric flapping in the stream current.

“The laundry,” one of the men answers.

“Yogi’s washing his underwear,” Christianson says. “No wonder no fish came up.”

Christianson has also been working with the Conservancy to map streams throughout Haida country. By law, logging operations must leave a buffer along waterways and take special precautions near salmon streams, but many streams have never been assessed and are thus susceptible to damage.

During the three years the project has been running, his team has mapped 51.6 miles of streams and added 14 new miles, including a stream above Hetta Lake, to the Alaska Anadromous Waters Catalog, which gives them special protection under state law. In June, the Conservancy gave him the Susan Ruddy Community-Based Conservation Award for his work monitoring and safeguarding his tribe’s salmon. “We want to have our fish, to invest in our grocery store,” he says.

Before he left, Christianson got a tip-off from one of his guys that sockeye had started nosing around in the harbor in the early afternoon. This was a promising sign, since he hadn’t caught much that year. “I’m going to run home and grab my net right now,” he said.

Two men in a motorboat
LOCAL LEADERSHIP: The mayor of Hydaburg, Tony Christianson (right, fishing with Danial Frank), has been a driving force in conservation efforts, such as mapping key salmon streams. © Chris Crisman

When biologists call the Tongass a temperate rainforest, they aren’t kidding. One step into the head-high thickets of salmonberry and devil’s club and Michael Kampnich looks as though he went for a swim. Driblets of rainwater run down his vinyl jacket, and his boots are coated with viscous mud. Kampnich, a commercial salmon fisherman and the Conservancy’s representative on Prince of Wales, is heading out to check a wildlife camera he set a month ago near a beaver den. This primeval patch of forest shading the Thorne River was never logged, and Kampnich’s photos of wolves, bears and deer around the island reveal the diversity of wildlife that depends on such healthy wooded refuges. He climbs onto a fallen log above the salad-green understory and points out two Sitka spruce twisting toward the sky: one as thin and wispy as a rake handle and the other as big around as a tractor tire. “In 500 years,” he says hopefully, “the small one will replace the larger one.”

Kampnich, who hails from upstate New York, originally came to Alaska to fell timber in the spring of 1980, at the age of 21. He became a cop in the small town of Craig and for 18 years served as harbormaster. Though he has always appreciated the region’s wildlife, he was wary of environmentalists’ “demonizing” of locals during the so-called timber wars. But about 10 years ago, when he attended a community meeting on the future of the Tongass that was organized by the Forest Service, he was struck by a presentation from a Conservancy representative. He realized that the organization wasn’t “advocating throwing people out of work and shutting things down,” Kampnich says. “I was impressed by that.”

In early 2009, the Conservancy hired him to interview loggers and other residents about their conservation views. He soon took a job as the organization’s Prince of Wales Island field representative. In 2012, he learned about some unused second-growth logs on the island, a byproduct of a Forest Service thinning effort. He proposed that the Conservancy pay local sawmills the going rate to dry and saw the lumber to the organization’s specifications, and then try to recoup the cost by selling the wood products to nearby retailers. Greg Boyd, Good Faith Lumber’s new owner, agreed, as did the owner of another small mill.

It’s still an open question how much industry will ever revolve around young-growth timber. During the first 60 years of a Sitka spruce’s life, it is in a race to reach the sky, and its growth rings are widely spaced, making it weaker than the huge logs The Claw once lifted. For mills, it’s also less efficient to cut small-diameter logs into rectangular boards because of the number of cuts needed and the amount of resulting waste. But if those small logs can be transformed into something with a higher retail value than basic boards—such as custom cabinetry and upscale interior paneling—there’s room to profit.

The Conservancy’s first batch of products from Good Faith, approximately 10,000 board feet, sold out locally nearly as soon as it was milled in early 2013. To expand the young-growth market, the Conservancy ordered up a second batch, some of which was bought by Finished Works, a custom builder of log cabins and timber-frame homes north of Anchorage. By then, any doubts Boyd may have harbored were erased. “The quest was on to get more,” he says.

Now, Boyd is gearing up to process 500,000 board feet negotiated in a young-growth timber sale from the Forest Service—the first of its kind in the region—and is planning to hire more workers. The timber is located at Dargon Point on the western shore of Prince of Wales Island, a region that was clear-cut about 80 years ago.

“Change doesn’t come easy,” Boyd says. “None of us like it. But it’s inevitable.”

The Claw may never be put to work again in the Tongass, but people can be.

Brendan Borrell is a correspondent with Outside magazine based in Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic and many other publications.