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Some of My Thoughts on Logging in Southeast Alaska

Someone left a copy of a 2007 National Geographic article about the Tongass National Forest on my deck. Thank you. I’m guessing that you are sending me a message regarding my last two posts on loading logs onto a ship, and logging in general.

I grew up during part of the logging era in Southeast Alaska. My feelings about logging, as I mentioned in a previous post, are complex. While I celebrate the work that people have and do in the timber industry, my heart aches at the sight of acres of trees reduced to bundles loaded onto an oceangoing ship. My opinion is that cutting our precious old-growth forests down for short-term jobs is a mistake, but it’s not all that simple. So this wordy post breaks with this blog’s tradition of light picture-stories, and digs a little deeper.

The K-Pulp photos were taken by my Mom.

Here’s one of the buildings at the Ketchikan Pulp Mill in the 1950’s. One of my grandfathers was a cutter. He cut the first tree to clear the site for this mill, and he got his picture in the paper. My other grandfather did some engineering work for the mill, including work on the dam for the mill’s water source. He got a nice picture of the dam to hang on his wall.

The mill was built by men but formed out of the politics of the time. As usual, the roots of those politics were formed earlier yet.

The 1929 USDA publication “Pocket Guide to Alaska Trees” says that the trees “…are of immense economic importance, for they cover a region the best use of which is for timber production, the land having little agricultural value. They are almost all within the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, which are under scientific forest management. This means that the forests are handled as a crop, the annual cut of timber never exceeding the annual growth, and permanent wood-using industries being thus provided for.”

Even in 1929 the forest here had been selectively harvested for decades. The biggest, best, and easiest trees had been taken.

Later, in the 1940’s, the timber in Southeast Alaska was considered a matter of national security. The fine, straight grained spruce was important for building aircraft. During WWII some loggers were not allowed to enlist in the military, and were ordered to continue working to supply aviation grade spruce.

I grew up with older people telling me about over-mature forests falling down and rotting. It was a terrible waste, they said, best to cut the wood while it was prime rather than to waste it. And cut they did.

A recent clearcut in Southeast Alaska.

At about five to fifteen years after harvest, clearcut areas can be rich in forage for deer, as well as berries for bears and humans. At this stage clearcuts are very hard to walk through, though.

Here in Southeast Alaska the Tongass National Forest was said to be on a 100 year rotation. As the last planned cuts of old growth timber fell, the first areas that had been cut would have trees mature enough for harvest. In my youth I was on board for this ‘scientific forest management.’ A forest is trees, right?

Now I see it very differently. A forest is so much more than trees, and the 100 year rotation didn’t work out that well. My uncle worked at that pulp mill in Ketchikan, but that mill and its supporting industries are now long gone. Wood resource jobs are no longer well provided for, and the last sawmills are hanging on by an old, rusty, mangled logging cable.

The fast-growing, second-growth timber coming up isn’t as straight, strong, tight-grained, and rot resistant as the old growth was. This new, lower-value wood is coming to market size as timber sources closer to large domestic markets are fully supplying those markets.

As the second-growth trees grow they shade out much of the forest floor for many years. The limited biodiversity makes a different kind of forest.

Hearing a logging industry professional say that the only way to make money harvesting second growth in Southeast Alaska is to bring in a team of foreigners to cut the trees and then to send the wood overseas left me with a terrible, empty feeling. If any clearcutting is going to happen here then shouldn’t the locals get some benefit from it? Do we have to be left with acres of stumps and empty pockets?

Some old growth is currently being harvested in parts of Southeast Alaska. The U.S. Forest Service has a few cuts going on in the Tongass National Forest.  Some of that wood is sent to other countries. There is also logging by Alaska Native corporations and the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust.

Much of the current logging in Southeast Alaska is being done by Alaska Native corporations that are beholden to their shareholders. Mandated to maximize profits, most of the wood that they harvest is sent overseas where it can be sold for a higher price.  I don’t feel that I have a right to be opinionated about what Alaska Native corporations do with their land and trees. I just celebrate the resurgence of Alaska Native culture and wish that the best of all cultures will be the norm.

Native corporations can make extended clearcuts on their property. This one is on Cleveland Penninsula, north of Ketchkan.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust has been granted some of the best timber land in the region to generate income to fund mental health programs. AMHT is well known here for cutting timber without regard for the mental health of locals, though, and only in recent years has there been strong enough push-back to change the locations of some of AMHT’s planned clearcuts. Through hard work, and some hardball tactics, AMHT, the State of Alaska, and the US Forest Service have arranged land trades to move some of AMHT's logging away from more populated areas. Sadly, those trades may degrade the quality of life for people in some smaller towns.

Agencies are sometimes at odds. The Scenic Byway program took a hit when the Alaska Mental Health Trust logged behind the sign.

I do take issue with how AMHT conducts business.

  • AMHT is a state corporation that is mandated to maximize use of their assets to fund their programs. I feel that in-state hire should be an asset that AMHT should be mandated to draw upon. If AMHT hires people from other states to remove our forests, leaving us empty-handed, staring at stumps, depressed, and needing mental health help, then isn't that a harmful self-feeding-dynamic?

  • Taking timber off of hillsides near roads and towns has burdened local residents. AMHT logging has left areas prone to windfall trees, taking out power lines repeatedly and leaving small communities to shoulder that expense. Without the trees to hold soil and regulate water flows on steep hillsides, AMHT cuts have also caused great concern for landslides onto roads.

  • AMHT is developing a mine at Icy Cape which is 75 miles from Yakutat. A September 26, 2016 article by the Anchorage Daily News quoted AMHT director John Morrison as saying, "It's difficult to quantify the value of (Icy Cape) in terms of heavy minerals; it's just mind boggling. There's enough heavy minerals there to run a really large mine operation for over 100 years and we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars every year."

  • The AMHT website currently notes that "Over the next decade, the TLO (Trust Land Office) will also develop timber resources in the Icy Cape District, which will allow synergy with mineral resource development strategies. Work will be conducted this summer to prepare for an initial TLO timber sale in the Icy Cape District. There has been timber harvesting in the area in the past."

  • According to their website, AMHT also has plans to continue logging operations in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska over the next two decades.

I am greatly saddened that AMHT plans to continue logging at the same time that a mining project will generously fund their programs.

Alaskan loggers are becoming scarce due to infrequent work opportunities, so crews are being brought in from other states to handle some of the sporadic timber sales. Our resources and industry are largely exported. The benefit to the people who live here in Southeast Alaska is dwindling. Dwindling, but not gone. For Alaskans who make their living in the current timber industry, their scarce jobs are very important.

Old growth forest is very important winter habitat for deer.

Old growth forest is very important winter habitat for deer.

Old growth timber cannot be re-grown in a generation. In a meeting with US Forest Service personnel and representatives of environmental groups I asked how long it takes to turn a clearcut into an old growth forest. The short answer was that they didn't know; maybe hundreds of years, probably more.

Luckily scientific forest management means more than a monoculture of trees for wholesale harvest these days. The forest is as much mushrooms, moss, fish, birds, and bushes as trees. And the trees themselves are being seen differently. We now know that trees are more than just individual plants.

Fungi are very important to forests. Trees trade nutrients with fungi. Fungi also do the hard work of breaking down cellulose from dead trees and recycling the nutrients into the living forest.

Trees are very important for…

  • Oxygen production

  • Carbon sequestration

  • Habitat creation

  • Water management and filtration

  • The mental health of humans

Now this might sound strange at first, but there is a lot of scientific evidence showing that Trees…

  • Nurture their young

  • Communicate with each other

  • Trade nutrients with other trees, even with different species of trees

  • Trade nutrients with fungi (mushrooms)

  • Mount chemical defense against attack.

A healthy forest understory has a wide variety of plants.

It has become obvious that Southeast Alaska trees are more valuable than just wood to make warplanes so that we can kill each other. We need a lot of living trees so that we can live. The need to have large forests isn’t just some lofty, seemingly vague ideal about saving the planet - it’s personal.

So there’s the rub. Balancing livelihoods with healthy forests is difficult. Our ‘manmade’ surroundings all stem from the natural world; growing things and resource extraction. The stuff that we make has to come from somewhere and go somewhere, and we are changing a lot of stuff. We are practicing planet terraforming without an instruction manual in order to continue increasing our population. It’s pretty overwhelming, so I’ll get back to this little corner of the world; this temperate rainforest that is vital to the lives of Southeast Alaska residents.

I am glad that the headlong rush to clearcut major tracts of Southeast Alaska has diminished somewhat. We may still need to cut some trees so let’s take time to approach it with thoughtfulness, great restraint, and respect. Let’s treat the remaining old growth forest as too rare and precious to log. My wish is that the forests of Southeast Alaska no longer be drawn upon at the whim of politicians and corporations.

The extensive logging that took place in the Tongass during the last century left lasting consequences, both bad and good. It is not mine to sit in lethargic disgust, accusing the previous generations of pillaging resources and ruining lives. It is mine to appreciate the infrastructure that logging built, and to treat the roads and towns as a legacy to improve and build upon for our children. It is mine to use the schooling that the logging era in Southeast Alaska paid for to create a more balanced path forward.

As the title says, this post includes a bunch of my opinions. I welcome yours. Please keep it thoughtful and polite. Thank you. And to the one who left me the National Geographic article - please stop by so that I can give it back to you and we can chat.

Alaska Beachcomber

This TED talk is SO interesting! Find out about trees talking, trading, creating networks and helping their young: Suzanne Simard "How Trees Talk to Each Other"

Related posts on Alaska Floats My Boat:

Logging Mental Health Land in Southeast Alaska

Logging in Alaska; Falling a Big Spruce

Loading Logs on the Ship

Boom Man and a Bit of Thorne Bay History

Second Growth; On the Bones of the Elders


Boom Man and a Bit of Thorne Bay Sortyard History

I promised you more photos and info on boom boats, and today I’ll deliver that plus a bonus. Tim and Theresa Lindseth of Thorne Bay were here in the 1980’s and ‘90’s and Tim worked as a boom man. The Lindseth’s generously shared information and photos with us so that we get to see a little of the Thorne Bay sortyard when it was running!

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

The sortyard ran from the 1960's to the year 2000. Tim and Theresa's photos are from the 1990's to 2000. Tim was there in the 1980's when Thorne Bay was the largest sortyard in North America. He tells me that they were processing 3.5 million board feet of wood a week.

I just had to give you a minute to let that soak in. That’s a lot of wood.

When you drive into Thorne Bay today you are greeted by the logging grapple, locally known as “the claw.” It weighs 44,000 pounds.

Before retirement the grapple looked like this.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

The grapple hung from this Cypress Equipment brand A-frame, and could pick a 100 ton bundle. Above, that little bundle in the jaws of the grapple is nuthin'. It could pick bundles so big that the jaws wouldn't close.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

There. That's better.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

The operator worked in that little yellow cab in the center of the photo above. The cab hung right out over the water so that he had a good view.

On shore there were four LeTourneau stackers to move wood around. These are wa-ay bigger than the Cat 988 in the last post. For you machine officianados - there was also a Dart stacker and a Wagner stacker, so the machines could be rotated for maintenance.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth. Back row: Stacker operator Chris Lewis, A-frame operator Eddie Nelson, Boom Man Tim Lindseth, Mike McKim, Bander Tim Lindseth Jr., Bander Wade Adamson, Bucker Joe Holland, Danny Killian. Front row: Jack Sims, Lorraine Sims.

The logs came to the sortyard via trucks as well as floating log rafts and it was all “camp run.” Spruce, hemlock, cedar, saw logs, and pulp wood were all mixed together. The bundles had to be opened, sorted, and re-bundled to be sent to the proper places. Every branded log had to be accounted for. The wood was handled two to four times in the yard.

In the Thorne Bay sortyard in the ‘80’s there were four to six boom men working a rotation so that there was coverage seven days a week. They worked nine to ten hours a day in the summer and eight and a half hours a day in the winter. When the bay froze over they broke up the ice with their boats and kept working. One year it froze so deep that “you could drive a Volkswagen across the bay.” That didn’t stop the work, though! Jerry Manier chainsawed through the ice all the way around the log raft so that they could keep working.

Below was a year when the ice wasn't quite that thick.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

On the back of the boom boat above it says "Ketchikan Pulp Co." That was the company that ran the sortyard. Theresa said that K-Pulp took good care of their employees and families.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

Shutdown was from December 15 to January 15, and outside of that the work kept going.

Here's Tim!

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

Tim ran a Marine Craft boom boat, made in the USA, that had an 8-71 Detroit engine so it could easily handle bundles and even move a raft when needed. Most of the boom boats had 6-71 engines. See where he is standing on the bow? That is layers of rubber to make a soft ‘bumper,’ called 'pudding,' on the boat so that he could push on another boat. Below that are metal teeth that stick out from the bow to bite into logs.

Tim casually said that he had "a jillion tricks" for operating that boat and doing his job. From my perspective, that's a huge understatement. So let's see, you have to have the strength of a logger, the balance of an ice dancer, the reflexes of a racecar driver, keep the books straight on millions of dollars worth of product, and be hyper-aware of everything that is going on around you. All of that while working in a moving environment that can kill you in dozens of ways. It takes a lot of smarts, and those gems of knowledge that he calls "tricks" are really worthy of an advanced diploma on the wall.

Boom boats steer erratically if you don't anticipate what the boat is going to do every second. There's no time to tie one up when you have to hop off for a few minutes. You set the throttle so that the boat is pushing lightly against the logs and then watch that the boat doesn't leave, while watching at the same time that you hit the log dog, and not yourself, with the ax. Some operators use bungee cords to hold the wheel and/or throttle in place.

Pushing logs around with a boom boat is only a part of what a boom man does. The boom man builds log rafts, pulls wood out of log rafts, keeps a written record of all of the bundles that he moves, and is working hard All. Day. Long. He’s also paying attention to the work around him to make sure that the right wood is where it needs to be when it needs to be there. Boom men are quick, agile, and wiry. Everything that they work on moves, and logs roll, so they have balance like crazy.

Photo courtesy of Tim and Theresa Lindseth

With political changes, production dwindled in the 1990’s, and the Thorne Bay sortyard shut down altogether in the year 2000. That photo of the LeTourneau stacker and the crew shows the last bundle of logs. Tim and Theresa are two of the wonderful people who had to make huge life changes due to that upheaval.

(I’m going to do an ad here, and they don’t know I’m doing it. Yet.) The Lindseth’s started Welcome Inn B&B here in Thorne Bay, and it is very nice. Plus Theresa’s cooking and baking is SO good that my husband does a happy flip-out if he gets one of her cookies. So please say thank you to them for sharing their history by checking out their website and keeping them in mind when you visit Thorne Bay. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Let's jump into the current time and the log loading from the previous post. The boom man was working hard as usual. He opens the boom sticks so that he can put more bundles into the raft:

He's running a type of boom boat that is called a log bronc because it bucks, tilts, and twists. A coarse move on the controls can toss the operator into the drink.

The prop on this boat turns 360 degrees, corresponding to the position of a knob on the steering wheel.  The prop is located below the center of the hull, giving the boat amazing agility. Whichever way the boom man turns that steering knob is where the boat goes. Quickly.

See the water splashing at the right of those bundles? This isn't done in slow motion. The work goes pretty fast.

When a boom man builds a log raft he runs a cable or rope – a swifter – over the bundles, and uses an ax to hammer a log dog into each bundle. The swifter keeps the bundles from drifting out of alignment, or leaving with the tide, while the next bundles are being brought over. When the row is completed the swifter is removed from the previous row. The log dogs  are knocked out of the wood with the back of the ax and the swifter is coiled.

The log raft is surrounded by boom sticks. Those are spruce or hemlock logs 65 feet long with a hole across each end. A boom chain is run between each of the boom sticks to form an enclosure around the log bundles.

The Sophia C stops by with supplies.

And the boom man keeps working.

Hands full and busy, watching the boat.

Don't drop the pin in the water, don't drop the pin in the water!

And just in case that isn't enough, there's always more to do...

...with a smile.

Wishing you happy work,

Alaska Beachcomber

P.S. Tara over at Alaska For Real wrote today to tell me that this post stirred memories for her dad. He worked at the Thorne Bay sortyard as a scaler-bucker for a few years. Here's Tara relating what her dad said about Tim Lindseth:

"...the way he maneuvered that boat was something to see...like an extension of his body. ...watching Tim was like watching a combination of dancer and strongest man competitor, how agile he was on the logs with super heavy coils of swifters on his shoulder, having to be fast and accurate--and what he did was absolutely essential. You really had to be there to get my dad's tone and his expression of complete, no holds-barred admiration. And my dad, with everything he's done in his life, is a hard guy to impress."

Tim is mentioned in Tara's CCW article "The Secret Life of Logging Dogs."

You can catch more of Tara's great Southeast Alaska writings in her blog and in her bi-weekly column in the Capital City Weekly.

More great stuff:

Welcome Inn B&B

I did not receive any form of payment for the links to Tim and Theresa's B&B. I did receive photos and information to share with you and am saying "Thank you!" to them.

Samsonite's Trailer

Logging Mental Health Land in Southeast Alaska

Logging in Alaska: Falling a Big Spruce

Loading Logs onto the Ship

Loading Logs onto the Ship

Here in Southeast Alaska logging is a significant part of the economy. I have complicated feelings about that, which I will go into in a different post. This post is a photo appreciation of the work involved in moving large amounts of wood to a cargo ship via water. Most locations here in Southeast Alaska don't have a multi-million dollar, deep-water dock systems to use for loading logs onto the ship, so the crew uses equipment and methods that have worked for over five decades.

The management at the sortyard allowed me to take photographs as long as I wore safety gear and stayed out of the way. I thank them tremendously. The logging industry here in Alaska is in a changing and controversial time, so it was very gracious of the people at this sortyard to let me record some images. I'm glad to get to share them with you!

In the photo below are logs that arrived at the sortyard on log trucks and were unloaded and stacked by a Caterpillar 988F log loader.

There's the loader on the right of the photo below. On the left is a log shovel, which is a modified excavator. It can nimbly move and sort logs.

The sort yard is a bit dusty, but that's way better than the other possibility - mud.

The spruce, hemlock, and cedar logs are sorted, scaled, and marked. This is valuable, old-growth timber headed for overseas markets that pay more than domestic buyers.

While the logs are in the bunks in the photo below they are banded into bundles.

It's pretty cool how the big loaders are articulated (they bend in the middle) so that they can maneuver in tight spaces.

The loader grabs up a log bundle and then drives over and dumps it into the water! At first I thought that the logs would just float when the loader released them, but I saw them slide out away from the beach a little.

I can see why the logs slide into deeper water as the loader operator deftly hooks the cable of the submerged log rails. He pulls the rails up the beach so that they will be in the proper place for the incoming tide.

The boom boat operator hustles over and collects up the log bundle. This bundle will join many more as the boom man builds them into a log raft. The next post will show more about boom boats and raft building! Give me a few days - I need to talk with a local boom man first.

I'm going to skip ahead to the log ship now...

Tied to two mooring buoys is the gigantic "Daiwan Dolphin." That's a BIG ship at 590 feet long and 98 feet wide, and it flies the flag of Panama. When the ship is loaded to the water line (where the black and red meet in the photo below) it draws 30 feet. Built in 2015, it is already showing some of the scuffs and dings of a boat that works for a living.

Pusher tug Sophia C and two boom boats assist in ship loading operations. The local crew also brought a small equipment barge that is tied near the stern of the ship.

The Sophia C and the boom boats make sure that the wood is where it needs to be when it needs to be there by towing and pushing.

Four men are on the floating log bundles next to the ship. One of the ship's cranes lowers a cable with a giant pulley (block) on it. Two heavy cables are attached to the bottom of the block. The loading crew runs those cables under the log bundle and hooks the other ends to the pulley. Then they get out of the way.

The guys are wearing boots with spikes on the soles (corks) along with other safety gear. They have long poles, called pike poles, that have a point and a hook on one end for pushing and pulling logs around. For the crew handling logs in the water it is very physical, repetitive work in a dangerous environment. They seem to take it in stride, though.

Depending on volume, time and available crew, the ship can load from both sides at the same time.

SO glad that is is good weather! Can you imagine doing this in the wind and rain?

The ship's crane operator lifts the wood onto the boat where crew settles it into place for the ride across the ocean.

The boom boat operator manages to catch a quick break.

So that's how it's done! Thanks for taking a look.

Waves and smiles to you,

Alaska Beachcomber and the Ship Loading Crew