What a difference a century makes.
One hundred years ago today, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. The Tongass is the biggest, wettest, and wildest place in the national forest system. Setting aside the Tongass was one of Roosevelt's many conservation achievements. Far ahead of his time, TR conceptualized conservation as the centerpiece of a strategy to keep America strong and prosperous long into the future.
The Tongass, one of 150 national forests that TR established during his presidency, is one-third of the world's remaining temperate rainforests, a comparatively rare ecosystem. It is an outdoorsman's paradise of superlatives: Big bears, big salmon, big rivers, big trees, big ice. Everything about the Tongass is big -- except for the federal government's vision for the forest, which over the past half-century or so has been as small as TR's was large.
The Tongass is a showcase of how badly the federal government can mismanage the great commons of America's public lands. Peruse the history of the Tongass, and one could be forgiven for wondering whether Russia actually sold Alaska to the U.S. Cutting quotas, road-building subsidies, timber sales that have no takers -- it's all reminiscent of the Soviet model of state socialism. Turning thousand-year-old Sitka spruce trees into pulp was just the sort of value-destroying enterprise that would have made the old commissars feel right at home.
Seeing the hash that was made of Prince of Wales Island's forests during the heyday of Tongass logging can give rise to tempting thoughts that perhaps libertarians are right when they assert that land is better off under private management.
But privatization wouldn't cure the baleful combination of pork-barrel politics and short-term expedience that has ailed the Tongass and flies in the face of everything that TR stood for.
What would set matters straight is a broader vision of the Tongass' true worth. Timber has a future in the Tongass, but not the high-volume production model that has wasted so much taxpayers' money and degraded so much habitat. Alaska is too far from markets and its production costs are too high for massive pulp and saw timber industries to be competitive.
A timber strategy that is both economically and environmentally more rational is harvesting limited amounts for high-value products, such as music sounding boards. Instead of subsidizing logging roads, why doesn't the federal government spend more on financing startup costs for small mills that can make those high-value items?
Beyond timber, the Tongass is a mosaic of values, both tangible and intangible. Clean water. Abundant fish and wildlife. Unsurpassable scenery. Managed as a whole system, not merely as a tree farm, the Tongass can deliver value to southeastern Alaska and the nation for decades and centuries to come. That's what conservation means and that's what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind 100 years ago.
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