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Alaska's Tongass: Take A Deep Breath

In Alaska's Tongass, the ancient trees have something to say...if you're willing to listen.

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I sit alone amidst 300-year-old Sitka spruce, listening to the trees. Nothing else here on Admiralty Island, Alaska, is making a sound. All I hear is the gentle, ever-changing whispers of pine needles brushing against each other high above me, as small gusts of light wind wander through the Kootznoowoo Wilderness.

On a big gust, sometimes the trees moan and creak to one another, but mostly it’s just a hushed, sibilant sound that moves in the branches hundreds of feet overhead. SHHHhhh-hhh. Inhale. SHHHhh-hh-hhh. Exhale. I imagine the trees are breathing; the forest is alive.

I consciously attempt to alter my breathing pattern to match the slower cycle of the trees. I feel calmer, more relaxed, more centered than I have in years. I, too, am alive.

The tree I sit against and those all around me have been breathing in this place since the 1600s, breathing harder in harsh winters, and relaxing-as they are today-in the long, gentle days of spring. This forest pushed its way up through the ground toward light long before anyone thought about writing a Constitution, before Alaska was a Russian colony, when only bears and natives occupied this island deep in what is today Tongass National Forest. In the ensuing years, these magnificent specimens have pursued a relentless quest upward. When I lean my head back, I see giant wooden arms rise straight to the sky. The Sitka spruce are so tall that perspective narrows them more than reality-all the trees seem to end at the same point far up in the sky.

For centuries, these spruce had no real enemies, they feared nothing. Even forest fires were not a big worry, the constant mist and light rains of the Alaska Southeast serving as firefighters. Occasionally, a strong and determined wind might topple a careless tree, one that had picked land that was a little too exposed or too loosely packed as its home. But the majority of the trees vied with each other to dominate the sky.

As I walk from this restful, spiritual place into an adjoin-ing clear-cut, I feel as though I’m leaving the sanctity of a cathedral and stepping onto a street where

a brutal murder was just committed. My pulse quickens, I viciously gulp in air. It’s easy to see where the wilderness ends and private, loggable land begins-it’s defined perfectly by the ground. Over there, the forest floor is flat and covered with decayed growth; over here, the dirt is torn up and scattered with decaying wood chips, as if a giant, demented rototiller and mulcher have plowed through here on a relentless march up the hill.

Only 4 percent of the Tongass’ 17 million acres contain high-volume old-growth forest, and nearly half that has already been cut. While some pieces are protected forever by wilderness designation, almost 1.7 million acres are identified by the current forest management plan as available for future logging. And, almost a third of the Tongass will be crisscrossed with roads to provide access to those trees.

A single old-growth tree can fetch as much as $60,000. Money was the motivation for the native corporation to allow the land I’m walking to be cut. Fortunately, demand for trees is temporarily down. The pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan are closed. Asia’s fiscal flu has taken some pressure off, too. In 1999, overall timber harvest in the Tongass may be as little as half that allowed by the Tongass Land Management Plan. But that’s still a yield of about 100 million board feet, and that’s only from the public land administered by the National Forest Service.

Trees aren’t replanted in clear-cuts in the Alaska Southeast, as apparently it takes about the same amount of time for the land to regenerate a new forest here whether you plant seeds or let nature do its thing. In 100 years, maybe a little more, today’s barren fields will once more be a harvestable forest. It’ll take another two centuries for it to qualify as old growth.

I’m thinking of these facts as I stand in the middle of the devastating clear-cut. I hear my own breath, now cycling faster than it did minutes ago, but nothing else. Off to the sides, I can just make out the forest still breathing. Some of the trees at the edge of the cut are now vulnerable; they breathe harder as the wind hits them broadside in ways they’ve never before experienced. One lets out a long, silence-shattering creak as it braces against a sudden gust. The next spruce that pops through the ground here will have an enemy.

As I look around, I realize that I’m anthropomorphizing, making the trees into something they’re not. But the wind keeps brushing against the treetops, and all I can hear is that persistent breathing. SHHHhhh-hhh. Inhale. SHHHhhh-hh-hhh. Exhale. I want the trees to be sentient beings, valiant conquerors of the seemingly endless Alaskan landscape. I want the trees to be my companions today. I’ve breathed with them. They make me feel at home.

I walk from the clear-cut back into the old-growth forest. I’m breathing more calmly now.

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