(Photo: Janice Searles.)
In the middle 1960s, the Forest Service announced that it was offering Admiralty Island in the Tongass National Forest, to the highest bidder, the bidders in this case being timber companies. Admiralty is 100 miles long, an average of 25 miles wide, and comprises about a million acres. It has the most concentrated population of brown bears, grizzly bears, on earth, as well as dense populations of bald eagles, five species of salmon, black-tailed deer, and many other creatures. There was the Tlingit settlement of Angoon on the ocean side of the island, and the remains of several old fish canneries and one "saltery" on the mainland side. A nasty scar from a smallish logging operation at Whitewater Bay south of Angoon was slowly healing itself. Apart from that, it was wilderness. Magnificent, vibrant wilderness. Hunters, hikers, photographers, and fishermen would visit, then go back where they came from. And the Forest Service wanted to let the loggers loose to fell every tree in sight.
The Sierra Club didn't like this idea at all. Neither did Karl Lane, a resident of Juneau who made his living ferrying people out to Admiralty to hunt, fish, and take photographs. Nor did the people of Angoon, who depended on the islands fish, deer, and other bounty for their livelihoods.
Sierra Club people in Juneau got in touch with Don Harris and Fred Fisher of the Sierra Club Legal Committee in San Francisco. Could they possibly help? As it happened a young lawyer who had worked briefly at Harris's and Fisher's firm had moved to Alaska. He name was Warren Matthews, better known as Skip. He agreed to look into the matter.
Matthews -- who would later become Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court -- thought that the Forest Service was vulnerable on several counts, including violations of the Wilderness Act, the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a variety of the Forest Service's own regulations. He filed suit in early 1970, a year and a half before Earthjustice was born.
At the trial, Matthews put on a string of witnesses who testified in enormous detail to the damage logging would do to Admiralty. The government argued back that the Forest Service was responsible for managing the national forests, not the Sierra Club and not the courts. It also argued that the plaintiffs had no standing to file the suit at all and that they had waited too long to boot. More than a year after the case was filed, and six months after the trial was held, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs on every point except standing. He opinion made no mention of wildlife or wilderness. Matthews filed an appeal.
As the appeal was being considered, a new study, actually commissioned by the company that wanted to log the island, was released. It reported that logging the island would utterly devastate the island's wildlife. Jim Moorman of Earthjustice sent the report to the appeals court and asked for a new trial. The case was returned to Alaska, where it was reargued. The judge proceeded to sit on the case for two years without rendering a decision, and at the end of that time the company withdrew its application to log. All well and good, but the battle for Admiralty and the rest of the Tongass was just getting underway.
The proposal to log Admiralty involved building a pulp mill on the coast north of Juneau. That mill was never built, but two other big ones were -- one near Sitka on Baranof Island, the other at Ketchikan at the south end of the Alaska panhandle. Those mills were rapidly gobbling up the Tongass for pulp headed for Japan to be made into rayon and many other products. Very little pulp or lumber from America's largest forest ever went to the American market.
Over the years, Earthjustice has fought out dozens of courtroom battles to save the best stands of timber and stop road-building that would open up pristine stands in order to protect wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and the forest itself. Most of those battles have ended well, but much logging has proceeded, much of it damaging clearcutting, much of that, alas, on lands owned by Alasa Native Corporations. Still, the Tongass retains a great deal of magnificent wilderness.
What became clear eventually was that the mills had to go. Their apetite was voracious -- to keep them running would guarantee the destruction of the forest. Not only that, they were horrendous polluters of both air and water and had wiped out rich shellfish beds where they discharged their foul wastes.
A turning point came when Irene Alexakos, then working for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, went to the Sitka mill. Two workers suggested that she ask to review the plants records concerning disposal of flyash. The company refused, then produced the documents. They showed that the company was disposing of dangerously contaminated waste into the bay without a permit. With that, EPA began to tighten up enforcement of pollution laws, and it became apparent that the cost of compliance with these laws would be high. The mill folded, as did the Ketchikan mill. Both were demolished.
Logging on the Tongass has fallen way below levels it once reached, and a transition to more reasonable levels is underway. Nevertheless, under the second Bush administration, the Forest Service continues to offer too many sales in places that should not be logged. The fight continues.