Kathie Durbin. Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999. 328 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87071-466-5.
Reviewed by Adam M. Sowards (Department of History, Arizona State University)
Published on H-Environment (May, 2000)
Tongass: An Instructive Tale
The story of Tongass National Forest and its great temperate rain forest is a frustrating one. This immense national forest, at one time 6,756,362 acres, has witnessed a nearly fifty-year battle between the pulp industry and its opponents to eke out a sustainable economic, ecological, and social balance. As Northwest journalist Kathie Durbin remarks in her prologue, "War has been waged here. The foe appears to be nature itself" (1). For much of the post-World War II era, who would be the victor and the vanquished proved unpredictable. In Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest, Durbin relates this assault on the land in telling detail and also reports on the related campaign, equally brutal, in Congress and the communities of southeast Alaska. After any seeming victory, more struggles remained; ultimate resolution seemed unlikely.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Tongass rain forest in southeast Alaska provided pulp mills over 300 million board feet annually. In 1964, the Forest Service increased timber harvesting, planning for timber sales to rise to 824 million board feet annually to supply four large pulp mills under long-term government contracts. The stage was set for intensive logging and an economic boom for southeast Alaska. Of course, the scenario also was ripe for clear-cutting, erosion, pollution, and environmentalist protest. Southeast Alaska experienced it all and more.
It is necessary to telescope the story. The Forest Service encouraged over-cutting. Meanwhile, the two big pulp companies in the region, Ketchikan Pulp Company and Alaska Pulp Company, conspired to keep timber sales artificially low and small timber operators out of competition. This collusion eventually led to an antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Additionally, the companies at different times broke labor unions, doctored pollution reports, and took advantage of the corporations formed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). In the meantime, local environmentalists formed the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and worked with other grassroots groups to reform the timber politics in Tongass National Forest by lobbying Congress against the wishes of Alaska's powerful pro-development, Republican Congressional delegation: Senators Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, and Representative Don Young. Scientists discovered damage to endangered species habitat, but their reports were silenced. Mills closed and the economy suffered, while environmentalists became a favored scapegoat for southeast Alaska's economic woes. A Forest Service employee filed a whisteblower disclosure with the Office of Special Counsel because he believed Forest Service managers routinely and knowingly violated the National Environmental Policy Act and he said so. By the late 1990s, after countless lawsuits, innumerable political moves and countermoves, and scores of dedicated local citizens and national environmentalists, Tongass appeared to be on its way to relief, if not recovery. Pollution was being cleaned up, timber-cutting and pulp-producing was being held in check, and the pulp industry no longer called the shots in southeast Alaska.
The picture is not entirely rosy, though. Many former mill workers or loggers find themselves unable to find high wage work in Ketchikan. Alaska Natives face lands that no longer support the subsistence life they seek, even though that was promised by ANCSA. And tourism offers a tempting economic strategy. Still, Durbin and southeast Alaska residents are optimistic that they can create an environmentally and economically sustainable existence in this vast Alaska rain forest.
Durbin tells a story that demands attention from environmental historians, policy makers, and concerned citizens. Her account reveals much about post-World War II timber politics. Moreover, it confirms Paul Hirt's argument in A Conspiracy of Optimism that purported the U.S. Forest Service consciously pursued a management agenda that they knew was unsustainable. Similarly, it echoes many of Nancy Langston's arguments in Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares that suggested foresters face almost insurmountable management tasks, as they are armed with ambiguous scientific data and shifting political, economic, and ecological directives. Thus, Durbin contributes to familiar historiographical debates.
Her account of environmental policy and politics is familiar and important, as is the discussion of federal resource policy and agency relations with the pulp industry. But more valuable is Durbin's sympathetic treatment of the people involved -- Alaska Natives, grassroots environmentalists, mill workers, loggers, fishers, recreationists, lobbyists, and politicians. She ably considers the social implications of environmental policies and carefully delineates the diverse interest groups affected by Tongass timber politics. The human drama adds significant perspective to the plight of the Tongass forest. So, Durbin's account succeeds because the author couples the dire ecological conditions in Southeast Alaska with the ominous human condition -- a disturbing symbiosis. Durbin wisely emphasizes the human costs that follow environmental shortcuts and mismanagement.
Tongass also complicates the environmental narrative most historians tell and most Americans instinctively think they know. Durbin shows that the proverbial white hats and black hats do not always adorn those we expect. Alaska Natives, for instance, can pursue forest development that wreaks environmental havoc; loggers and commercial fishers can work assiduously to promote economic planning by ecological principles; and politicians can, if properly persuaded, put environmental interests above economic priorities. To be sure, there are ample negative consequences that will ring a familiar bell: the U.S. Forest Service sacrificing science for profit, the timber industry racing to cut the last tree, and outsiders (e.g., environmentalists, lawyers, politicians) debating and shaping the future of a place where they do not live. Perhaps that is what makes Tongass such an interesting book: it tells a recognizable story that does not quite fit in the customary mold.
Despite these considerable strengths, some environmental historians may not find Tongass altogether satisfying. Durbin writes an account that is primarily concerned with getting the facts out. There is, as a result, more information than analysis. Her sources are dominated by interviews and newspaper articles, which illuminate this account with some vivid immediacy, but lack a critical perspective--a perspective that Durbin could provide but seldom does. Durbin writes in a straightforward style replete with quotations. Unfortunately, the prose is burdened with details and at times borders on the unimaginative. In general, however, these weaknesses do not detract from the overall worth of this book.
In her epilogue, Durbin wonders about the future of Southeast Alaska and the place of the residents in a Tongass forest that might become ecologically and socially sustainable. She asks and speculates: "How much timber, how many salmon and deer and brown bears, how many cruise ships disgorging passengers, how many kayakers paddling into quiet coves? Answering those questions will require a shared sense of identity, a shared sense of destiny" (309). Surely, Durbin is asking the right questions, and they are questions numerous communities now confront. Resource-dependent towns that must envision a future with an economy fundamentally different from the purely extractive one of previous decades easily become torn apart. Whether the residents of Tongass can construct a common identity and future that is more sustainable than the timber cutting of the past remains to be seen.
. Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1995).
. For an account of the trouble caused in such towns that turn to tourism, see Hal K. Rothman, Devil's Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).
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