There's such a difference between knowing something in your head and experiencing it with your whole self.I've known about the Tongass National Forest for years. To anyone who follows environmental news, it's legendary. America's last temperate rainforest. Eagles and wolves and grizzlies. Massive clearcuts, crooked deals with pulp companies. The federal forest that loses more taxpayer money than any other.Knowing all that, seeing pictures of the intact forest and the cruel clearcuts, made me a crusader for the Tongass. Then this summer I went to southeast Alaska and began to know what I was talking about.The Tongass pretty much IS southeast Alaska, that long chain of coast and islands that reaches nearly halfway down the Canadian province of British Columbia toward Washington state. There is private land there, especially around the few towns -- Sitka, Haines, Skagway, Ketchikan. Most towns, including Juneau, the state capital, can only be reached by boat or plane. There are also native reservations and Tlingit towns -- Angoon, Hoonah, Kake. But most of southeast Alaska belongs to you and me and the other 270 million of us, in the form of Glacier Bay National Park, Admiralty and Misty Fjords National Monuments, and the Tongass National Forest.>From a boat threading the inland channels the land looks both dramatic and monotonous. Steep slopes plunging down into dark water. Gray sky and dripping mist (on average 100 inches of precipitation a year). Sitka spruce and western hemlock sending tall trunks straight up to the clouds. You can understand why the Tlingits developed totem poles as an art form.The only excitement, from a boat in the middle of a channel, comes from feeding, frolicking humpback whales. If you're in a boat that stops for whales, you can drift quietly, hear them grunt and sing and blow all around you, watch them leap, tail flukes sinking gracefully back down below the surface. When they find a surface school, you can look right down their gullets as they open their jaws and scoop along like huge baskets, panicked silvery fish leaping out of their way.Whales aren't the only creatures that chase those fish. This is a fishing economy more than it ever has been or will be a logging economy. Salmon and crab and halibut supply hundreds of commercial fishing operations and subsistence for most of the full-time residents, human and otherwise.The "otherwise" residents become obvious if you get into a small boat that can go near shore. Eagles everywhere. Gulls, puffins, seals, sea lions, and black bears coming down to the beach at low tide to scarf up mussels. These and other creatures feed on the incredible abundance of marine life and deposit the nutrients back up on land, where they nourish the forest.The champions of the uphill nutrient pump are the salmon. Six kinds of salmon surge up the clear streams of the Tongass at six different times of year to spawn and die and fatten bears and eagles and Tlingits. There used to be salmon runs like that all along the east coast where I live, but I had never seen one till I went to the Tongass. It brought tears to my eyes, a stream so full of fish I could hardly see the water, an intense, purposeful backward-flowing fish-river, lifting nutrients from the sea high up onto the land to renew the cycle of life.Southeast Alaska is one of the few places where we haven't yet extinguished that salmon-flow by clearcutting forests, paving land, damming and polluting rivers. But the Forest Service, which manages this treasure for you and me, has already permitted over half a million acres of clearcuts and has earmarked 670,000 more acres for the loggers.Inside the forest the apparent sameness disappears. You walk along streams, struggle up steep slopes, happen upon open bogs. There are blueberries, salmonberries, nangoonberries, watermelonberries, bog orchids, coralroot orchids, devil's club, skunk cabbage. Above all there is moss.Walking in the Tongass is like walking on deep sponge. Moss hangs in festoons from tree branches and pads the sides of standing trunks. Fallen trees become moss gardens, out of which sprout neat lines of new seedling trees. I dutifully looked up in awe at the soaring old-growth trunks, but then I spent the rest of the time looking down at the lush recycling system on the forest floor. I will leave to your imagination -- no, better, go see it yourself -- what happens to this intricate system and to the deer and bears and orchids and soil when you clearcut this forest.For decades we taxpayers subsidized the cutting of the Tongass at a rate of about $40 million a year. Two huge pulp companies, one owned by Louisiana-Pacific Corporation and one by Japanese investors, had sweetheart deals giving them Tongass trees for roughly ten percent of their market value.Both those pulp mills are now shut down. There is an opportunity to manage the Tongass right, doing selective cuts that allow all species to prosper while still feeding sawmills and small wood-products companies. But Alaska's Congressional delegation, Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, keep shoving through legislation ordering the Forest Service to get out larger cuts from the Tongass.No words can give you the actual experience of this forest. The best I can do is to convince you that we own some magnificent real estate there. We need to insist that those we have employed to manage it see it and treat it as much, much more than raw material for paper towels and toilet paper.(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)


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