ON AN UNCOMMONLY SUNNY WINTER DAY on Prince of Wales Island, at the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle, my old friend Andrew Mattox and I stand on telemark skis atop a snowy logging road in the Tongass National Forest, staring down at the gently sloping, 600-foot-long clear-cut upon which we plan to carve magnificent first tracks. We are caffeinated to the point of Tourette's and fidgeting with excitement.
I creak like the Tin Man, dressed as I am in a used lacrosse helmet with metal face guard, motocross chest armor, roller-hockey breezers, soccer shin guards, elbow pads, and a backpack filled with such last-minute sundries as a 30-pound, 18-inch chainsaw.
Roo, as I call him, is less concerned with safety. He wears a helicopter flight helmet (complete with boom mike), one of those blue-pinstriped hickory shirts favored by railroadmen and loggers, and a canvas kilt over bare legs. He's accessorized with a hip sheath for his brush saw, an orange buccaneer's sash, a snap-away pink cape, and, over the kilt, a Kevlar loincloth with a skull and crossbones that he sewed up in a flurry of enthusiasm.
"Remind me why I'm doing this?" he asks.
Below us, two-foot-wide stumps jut up through the thin veneer of snow in every direction. Snapped limbs lance sideways, abandoned logs traverse the hillside like parking barricades, and under it all is slash, a false floor of twisted limbs and rotted wood.
"You won rock, paper, scissors," I reply.
We gaze downslope. "No," corrects Roo, embodiment of the modern barbarian and master of the non sequitur. "I'm doing it for the children!"
With that, he poles off like a World Cup downhiller, trumpeting a loud "Yarrr!" He vanishes over the false horizon of a decaying log, then reappears in a low telemark crouch, leaning far back, picking up speed until his tips skim over the dog-hair bristle of slash poking through. He rides up over brush piles and debarks branches, his buccaneer's sash flapping. His first ten turns are nothing short of glorious.
FOR THE ADVENTUROUS skier, stump skiing is the next frontier. At least that's what Roo and I are telling ourselves. And nowhere are there more beautiful stumps than the Tongass. Stretching from glaciated 7,000-foot peaks to low, craggy islands, the 26,200-square-mile national forest takes up 80 percent of the Alaska Panhandle, much of it rock and glacier and bog. But the Tongass also contains the world's largest intact expanse of old-growth temperate rainforest—some 14,323 square miles of long-lived conifers, a third of such rainforest left on earth, including 838 square miles of the largest-diameter trees. This moist, cool environment of Sitka spruce and red and yellow cedar harbors astoundingly productive salmon grounds as well as brown bears, moose, gray wolves, northern goshawks, and wolverines.
Much of that old growth is off-limits or too remote for harvest. But the Tongass has been logged extensively since World War II, when loggers systematically began cutting down the giant conifers. So far, environmentalists say, most of the biggest trees have been felled, a handful of mills turning six-foot-diameter trunks into window frames, guitar soundboards, and pulp for newspapers and disposable diapers. Forest Service plans call for harvesting some 775 square miles of the biggest remaining trees over the next century.
In effect, we've been paying the logging companies to cut trees. Since 1982, the federal government has lost an average of $40 million a year subsidizing Tongass sales, says the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, offering life support to a dying industry that employs about 400 loggers and road builders. The Forest Service sees it differently, estimating that the amount spent on logging infrastructure is less than half that figure. "That number is so inflated it's embarrassing to see it in writing," says Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole. "And anyway, the Forest Service is not mandated to make a profit." Critics, he says, ignore the fact that state and native lands have been logged even more heavily, that the industry employs closer to 1,000 people when you count the pilots and grocers who support it, and that sales are sustainable, moving toward second-growth cuts.
President Bill Clinton tried to stop the big giveaways with his 2001 "roadless rule," designed to prevent the new access roads necessary to log old growth in national forests. Americans submitted 1.2 million comments to the Forest Service on the executive order, 96 percent in support. But when Clinton left office, the Bush administration undid the rule by allowing each state to choose whether it wanted to comply, spurring legal battles that continue today.
This is all terrible, obviously.
Peeved, I once let a Greenpeace solicitor shake me down for $15 on the way to the post office. But then I thought, Wait a second, why not make use of those taxpayer subsidies? The Tongass has snow, wild country, great access. How about stump skiing? I pictured myself scribing perfect arcs around ancient trees lopped off at the base as speckled goshawks barrel-rolled overhead and gray whales migrated through the Inside Passage. It would be the next big thing, the poor man's heli-skiing!
The epicenter of all this possibility seemed to be Prince of Wales Island, once the capital of old growth and now the most heavily logged place in the Tongass. Just 135 miles long, the largely federal-owned island is blessed with some 2,000 miles of veiny logging roads leading to dozens of naked buttes and bald ridgetops. To my wide eyes, it was the clear-cut choice for clear-cut skiing.
I called Roo, who at the time was a smoke jumper based near Winthrop, Washington. He immediately recognized the brilliance of the plan, declaring it a "priority-pink mission," whatever that means. Two weeks later, we were bucking an hourlong seaplane flight from Ketchikan, racing for the pow on P.O.W. Island.
SOON ENOUGH, we discover the Curse of Slash. During our inaugural run, Roo is slaying it, but around his 11th turn he abruptly demonstrates that the speed needed to avoid breaking through the brush is also the exact speed at which you can't stop in time to avoid chest-crushing obstacles. Roo turns hard to dodge an exploded root ball and, having lost his momentum, is swallowed up.
I drop to my knees so as not to trigger a slashalanche.
"Agggh!" Roo yells, pinned to his elbows, unable to reach the handsaw at his waist. I go for the chainsaw, but the damn thing won't start. Then I remember we forgot to gas it up.
"Hold on!" I cry, as if he had another option, and inch closer.
After much writhing and snapping of boughs, Roo slithers free. His legs are scraped raw and his unmentionables are unmentionable, the Kevlar loincloth having behaved more like a removable codpiece. But Roo is unfazed. He thrusts my chainsaw high overhead and hollers, "I cannot be caged! I cannot be contained!"
The slash does not appear cowed.
We retreat back down to the fishing town of Craig (pop. 1,209) and head to the Hill Bar to plan our next sortie, one to an older cut where the slash has decomposed. Perusing our list of suggestions from bemused locals, timber consultants, and environmentalists, we settle on a tract called Fusion, a three-year-old, 1,400-acre cut at a powdery 1,500 feet. The next day, Roo and I borrow a Chevy pickup from a fishing guide, prepared to battle the snowy roads. In the bed we have 400 pounds of split wet cedar for extra traction and a set of heavy-duty chains—useful, we discover, only before you bury the truck up to the axle. Pulling out our skis, we opt for a fast-'n'-light approach through a bracing drizzle.
Roo, noting "low coffee pressure," downs his sixth cup of the morning. I have to ask if he really needs it. "Trust me," he replies. "I have special training."
At a fork in the road, we turn right. No, left. We're lost. Reeking from our snack of canned salmon, we figure it's best not to bumble around waking black bears, so we stop at a muffin-top hill with no trapdoor slash and a rambunctious amount of western hemlock saplings. I scramble uphill so Roo can photograph my pioneering run.
"All right," I holler. "Dropping!"
Everything goes green and slappy.
As Roo will describe it, the trees begin to shake as if possessed. A glove pops up. Goggles flash into view. A ski pole swings overhead. He hears what sounds like a bulldozer piling through a chopstick factory before I burst into an opening, a sapling thwacking me between the legs as I straightline it right for him.
I don't know if there's time for evasive maneuvers, but no matter. A tenacious little sprig hooks the tip of my right ski and tosses me—in a graceful pirouette, Roo assures me—into a deep tree well.
Water from the fragrant needles drips onto my face. Somewhere, I think, there is a cartoon whah-whah horn that could be put to better use.
THAT NIGHT, WE TOODLE over to a condo in tiny Thorne Bay, where Forest Service resource expert Jeff Tilley gives us better directions to Fusion. In 2004, this cut was "pre-roaded" for 1.6 million taxpayer dollars and sold at a loss for $418,265. The sale came in about 50 percent over the Forest Service's minimum bids of $2 per 1,000 board feet for hemlock, $12 for spruce, and $24 for cedar—still quite a bargain.
While Jeff's wife and mother-in-law watch the baby and prepare tacos, he tells us that, five years ago, he quit his job as a Forest Service researcher monitoring the health of eastern seaboard forests and relocated to the Tongass to prepare timber sales. "It's pretty different," he says, "but I can't say I favor one job over the other." But the more we talk—about big cuts and microsales, about salmon culverts and stream buffers—the more apparent it becomes that Jeff is hardly the ravenous woodchuck I expected to meet.
His evenhandedness matches that of the Tongass's deputy forest supervisor, Olleke Rappe-Daniels, when I call her later. After defending current Tongass practices, one of the last things she says is, essentially, we're just doing what we're told.
"I don't think there's a person in this forest who wouldn't enjoy a huge recreation budget that we put all our energy into," Rappe-Daniels says. "But the reality is that Congress, in their deliberations, has not seen fit to fund it." Recreation does appear to be the future. The Forest Service's 2007 draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Tongass says that the net present value of tourism and recreation is 76 times greater than that of timber sales, with anglers, hunters, cruise passengers, and wildlife viewers spending an estimated $150 million a year.
The next day the locals really stick a fork in our toaster, ruining our stereotypes by being nice yet again. Roo and I drive 70 miles of icy gravel road north to check out Whale Pass, a former logging camp housing 50 folks—some of whom, we've heard, greeted the Greenpeace protest ship Esperanza in 2003 with shouts of "Kiss my ax! Kiss my ax!"
"That must be the gas station," I say, pointing to a small cedar-sided building. Four pickups are double-parked in front of a tank outside. A sign down the road reads LAST CHANCE GAS.
Inside, we see two bearish guys seated at a table within reach of a half-gallon of Black Velvet. It's 1:30 and the bottle is nearly empty.
"Hey, how's it going?" asks Roo.
Nods. "Is there a store?"
A third, even larger man steps forward. He is at least six-five, with hands like baseball mitts and a brown mullet whose top practically scrapes the popcorn ceiling.
Chipper as always, Roo points to the numerous wolf pelts splayed on the wall. "Did you shoot those?"
"I shot 'em," growls one of the guys at the table—Ron, the owner.
Not gonna lie: I'm scared. But then the giant sees Roo's logger shirt. Roo notices his. They nod. Next thing I know, Roo and Terry, the giant, are comparing forest-regeneration rates and heartily bashing the Endangered Species Act (a piece of legislation Roo normally supports, but hey . . . ). Ron and the other guy, Fred, turn out to be awesome, too, and on the way home I apologize for ribbing on Roo's hickory shirt. "I was wrong," I say. "That shirt is better than a bulletproof vest."
He grins proudly, then gets back to digging the truck out of the snowbank he just drove us into.
FUSION, IT TURNS OUT, is a mile or two beyond the hemlock patch we skied on our last attempt, and the next afternoon, plump with anticipation, we arrive at a frosty cul-de-sac and behold the Vail of clear-cut skiing. The 30-degree, north-facing cut sprawls luxuriantly below a high ridge before mellowing out in a natural basin. Nothing but the majestic six-foot-wide stumps of ancient trees dot the slope. The slash has either decomposed or drowned under the armpit-deep snow, and regeneration has yet to appear, leaving us with a blank, unruled page. This is it!
I can tell Roo's feeling expansive.
"Erkit," he says, using my childhood nickname and pointing downhill to a centuries-old log as big around as a sewer pipe. "You need to jump off that."
I hustle uphill and let 'er rip. My edges bite confidently into the Styrofoam snow. I arc left into the swimming-pool-size tree well of a ginormous double-overhead stump and spring into a right-hander, which sets me up perfectly for the sewer pipe. For one glorious moment, time and space and the cost of a flight-for-life visit to the nearest trauma center have no meaning. I land and shoot the gap between two rime-covered tubes, surf the whoop-de-doos below the logging road, and skim over barber chairs, leaning stobs, buckskin cigars—a virtual cornucopia of stumps!—before coasting to a stop.
"Aooooogah!" I yell to Roo. This is the experience we traveled so far to find, an experience you couldn't have anywhere else except, maybe, the terrain park. Or the backcountry. Or a fun NASTAR course. But, anyway, "Aooooogah!"
Roo and I trade runs for hours until, exhausted, we plop down for a final rest.
There's not a kiss of wind. Across the valley, 18 cuts, each a jagged tear in the canopy, catch the drowsy light of dusk. I find myself scanning for goshawks, imagining the whales, the salmon, the anything. And the realization hits, for the first time, that once the caffeine runs out, the clear-cut-skier finds himself in the middle of, well, a clear-cut, notable only for what is felled, fled, or just plain gone.
Maybe it's not such a good idea that we level everything green and growing and Hobbity, I tell Roo. Thankfully, he remains joyous and inscrutably Zen.
"Erkit," he replies, "why do you hate our freedoms?"
LONG AFTER OUR TRIP, the policy scuffles continue. This fall, the Senate was planning to consider the Andrews-Chabot amendment, which would cut roadbuilding subsidies to the Tongass, as part of the 2008 appropriations bill for the Interior Department. Also on the docket was the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2007, which would turn Clinton's rule into law. Both bills faced an uphill battle, having been introduced and stalled before.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has been redrafting its long-range plan for the Tongass. The public wants wildness. The Forest Service would embrace a mandate to focus on recreation. So who, I wonder, supports whittling away at the old forest?
I call up Ron at Last Chance Gas.
"Ron," I say, "take the $40 million-a-year subsidy, divide it by the roughly 400 people employed logging and road building in the Tongass, and that comes out to $100,000, right?"
"OK," he says gamely.
"So would you rather have $100,000 a year or your job?"
He pauses. "I'd just as soon see the logging keep going," he says. "But I figure any day now, any year, they're gonna shut it down. Then I'd take the hundred thousand. Build me a nature lodge. Bring those tourists up."
Perfect! Ron runs the chalet, I run the slopes. Once again, the Tongass is wide open for business.