The Fight To Save The Great Alaskan Rainforest

Credits

Peter Mellgard is the senior editor of Noema Magazine.

POINT BAKER, Alaska — The sun was shining in the Alaskan rainforest on the morning Elsa Sebastian nosed the Murrelet out of a tiny harbor on the edge of an island in one of the world’s most remote wildernesses. A breeze blew out of the north at a steady 10 knots, and the sea was glassy and calm. “The boat feels good,” Elsa said, mostly to herself, as she kept an eye on the underwater rocks that lurked in the narrow channel. “The weather’s fucking great: bright blue skies, it’s warm, I’m in a tank top. It’s looking good.” The Murrelet’s two-cylinder engine thumped below deck as she turned us around the tip of the island into Sumner Strait, at the end of which was the open Pacific.

Elsa is a commercial fisher and an environmental activist. She was born up here in the sparsely populated, rugged rainforest of coastal Southeast Alaska. She has described herself as a “bush kid.” Literally from birth, she spent summers aboard her parents’ troller, fishing for salmon and halibut. She learned her way around boats at the same time she learned to walk. Now 30, during salmon season she works as a deckhand on a drift gillnetter in Bristol Bay, hundreds of miles west, and in the winter, she works as a conservationist.

The Murrelet is a blue-water voyage boat, a 38-foot ketch with two masts built in 1979 in Washington. It’s a live-aboard vessel with a galley, a diesel stove, bookshelves and a dining table. Onboard at the beginning of its first serious trip with Elsa at the tiller was a crew of five: Mara Menahan, an artist who has biked the length of the Baja Peninsula and recently spent a year on the Greenland ice sheet; Colin Arisman and Gleb Mikhalev, filmmakers; and me. Their friend Natalie Dawson, the executive director of Audubon Alaska, would come aboard in the town of Craig, a few days’ sail down the coast.

Their mission was called “Last Stands,” a citizen-science “ground-truthing” expedition to document a vanishing landscape. The crew would circumnavigate Prince of Wales, the fourth-largest island in the country, sailing through remote bays and inlets and passages counter-clockwise back to Point Baker. It was a distance of some 350 nautical miles and would take nearly a month. The goal was to gather environmental data from the rarely visited backcountry and to document through art, film and personal experience how rampant clear-cut logging and climate change are slowly eating away at the Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses. “I’m here to memorialize,” Mara told me. “At a time when we’re losing so much, who’s paying attention? If we can’t stop the destruction, maybe we can slow it down long enough to say goodbye.”

Over decades, Southeast Alaska’s once-thriving timber industry took down acre after acre of the ancient forest that dominates this landscape. The logging led to a steep decline in habitat for wildlife and threatens the lifestyles of people in frontier communities. It also harms the fishing and tourism industries, both of which now constitute a much greater share of Alaska’s economy than timber.

“The Tongass alone is estimated to hold 8% of all the carbon stored in American forests.”

Despite the clear-cuts, the Tongass remains one of America’s largest natural carbon sinks. Vast amounts of carbon dioxide are stored by the enormous forest, making the long-term health of this place critical for combatting global warming. But in worrying ways, the entire forest seems to be dying because of climate change, and at a faster rate compared to the rest of the world. Warmer and drier conditions are causing a vast die-off of yellow cedar, one of the first species identified anywhere on the planet whose widespread (and decades-long) decline is directly attributable to a warming climate. Hemlock, the most prevalent tree in the region and an important timber species, is threatened with an infestation of sawfly, whose larvae feed on its needles. Large and destructive forest fires are not common in the Alaskan rainforest, but as the summers get warmer and drier and the trees continue to die, they soon may be.

Even as the forest quite visibly struggles in an era of climate change, there are those — timber companies, the United States Forest Service, the state of Alaska, the Donald Trump administration — who want to see millions more acres of what remains clear-cut like so much already has been. In 2018, the state of Alaska petitioned the Trump administration for an exemption from the “roadless rule,” the nearly two-decade-old federal policy that protects wilderness areas in national forests. Yesterday, the Department of Agriculture, which oversees America’s national forests, announced the rule would no longer apply to the Tongass.

The roadless rule has kept around 9 million acres of the Tongass out of reach of timber companies. Those areas hold some of the oldest and largest trees, and are among the most important for the broader health of the Tongass. Opening them to the roar of chainsaws has been a goal long held by Alaska’s industry-friendly politicians, despite broad support in the state and around the country for the protections afforded by the rule.

Independent economists and even the forest service itself agree that the good years are gone for Southeast Alaska’s timber industry. People who live in this region have moved on to other jobs — in healthcare, fishing, tourism. The millions of visitors who arrive here every year are not eager to fish in poisoned waters or look out from the decks of cruise ships at clear-cuts scarring the forest. It boggles many minds that supposedly budget-conscious Republican policymakers in Juneau and Washington ignore their own researchers’ bleak outlook for timber harvests and the immense burden the timber industry places on taxpayers, who have been forced to subsidize an industry that hemorrhages money each and every year for decades, to keep a handful of jobs afloat — especially in a place that has global significance during the climate crisis.

To Elsa, the nakedly pro-timber focus of those political leaders, many of whom live nowhere near the Southeast Alaska rainforest, ignores facts on the ground: the damage logging does to wildlife habitat and businesses that rely on tourists, the threats to subsistence lifestyles, the clear warnings of climate science. Elsa decided she would set out and document those facts for herself. But more than that, she embarked on this expedition as an effort to explain what it means to be in the forest, to feel the moss beneath your feet, to see the salmon in the streams, to gaze in wonder at the crowns of centuries-old trees towering overhead. Maybe, she thought, she could convey that feeling to the people who can decide the fate of the forest, and stop them from allowing it to die.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

The region known as Southeast Alaska stretches from Yakutat Bay at 60 degrees north latitude more than 500 miles down along the Pacific coast of North America. It is sometimes called the Alaskan panhandle. Along the mainland runs the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, the jagged crests of its tallest peaks rising nearly 20,000 feet above the ocean. East of the crest is the Canadian province of British Columbia; to the west, Alaskan territory. Fjords carved during the ice age reach inland like skeletal fingers, where massive glaciers still lurk. Offshore, there is an archipelago of islands, more than 1,100 of them, some larger than entire states in the lower 48, some mere bare specks of rock rising above the oscillating tides. Ice-covered peaks a mile high rise above the misty skies on the biggest of these islands, and a carpet of conifer forest covers almost everything below 2,000 feet of elevation.

“In these coast landscapes,” the naturalist John Muir wrote during a mailboat journey from Puget Sound north through the archipelago in 1879, “there is such indefinite, on-leading expansiveness, such a multitude of features without apparent redundance, their lines graduating delicately into one another in endless succession, while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal, that all penwork seems hopelessly unavailing. Tracing shining ways through fjord and sound, past forests and waterfalls, islands and mountains and far azure headlands, it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.”

The forest that covers this landscape is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet. It gets 25 feet of rain a year in some places. In this primeval place, over thousands of years, a robust but sensitive ecological equilibrium was established. Hemlock, spruce, cedar, fir, pine and yew overtook the landscape as the ice age ended. The trees here grow incredibly slowly and to towering heights. Western hemlock and western red cedar sometimes reach 800 years old and grow to be about 150 feet tall. The majestic Sitka spruce, Alaska’s state tree, has been known to add only an inch of radial growth in a century. And then there’s the king of them all, the yellow cedar, regal specimens of which started growing not long after Jesus died.

In ways we barely understand, a healthy, contiguous old-growth forest is crucial for the survival of the overall ecosystem, sustaining the plants and animals that dwell not just in the forest but also in the sea. On land, the huge trees provide habitat for deer and wolves, black bears and brown bears, flying squirrels, eagles, murrelets, martins, minks and countless other species.

Over time, the tallest and oldest trees are buffeted by the region’s ferocious storms and will fall and die. But their pivotal role in the ecosystem is far from over. Openings in the canopy create patches of sunlight that carry all the way to the forest floor, where small plants, tree seedlings, mosses, lichens and fungi can establish themselves. The fallen trees become “nurse logs,” sustaining what they once sheltered. Migrating up rivers from the ocean, millions of salmon rest and spawn in eddies and sandbars where fallen trees have blocked the flow of water. Predators and scavengers complete the cycle by dragging fish carcasses deep into the forest, where they give up their nutrients to the soil for the trees.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change warned that many of the direst impacts of climate change — coastal flooding, global food shortages, widespread forest fires — will be apparent in a few short years if emissions continue on their current trajectory. Keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius will require massive efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the panel’s report said, potentially by capturing it at power plants or directly from the atmosphere, though those technologies are costly and, so far, not scalable globally.

Natural ecosystems like grasslands, peatlands and forests consume and store CO2 on their own. Globally, forests sequester a quarter of humanity’s carbon emissions. Temperate rainforests in particular are among the most efficient natural carbon sinks on the planet. They hold more living stuff (biomass) than any other ecosystem on Earth, including tropical rainforests like the Amazon. The Tongass alone is estimated to hold 8% of all the carbon stored in American forests.

Preserving the world’s forests is among the most cost-effective and efficient strategies we have to combat climate change. Of the top 20 solutions to global warming studied by Project Drawdown, a coalition of scientists and policymakers, five focus on forests, including preserving temperate rainforests (number 15). Another group of scientists found in 2017 that better forest management and reforestation efforts on a global scale could lower global emissions by nearly 16 gigatons by 2030.

But preserving what forests the world still has is a tall order when climate change-denying, pro-extractive industry leaders like Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are in power in two of the world’s countries with the largest amount of forest. Globally, we’ve been heading in the wrong direction for years. Between 2001 and 2019, according to Global Forest Watch, the world lost 1.5 million square miles of forest, an area nearly as large as India and Pakistan combined.

Reversing the trend of global deforestation is only the beginning. The IPCC report warned that under certain scenarios, holding the worst impacts of climate change at bay may require as much as 3.6 million square miles of more forest, an area the size of the entire continental United States.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

The majestic trees of the Alaskan rainforest were cut down almost as soon as humans arrived on these forested islands. Early indigenous settlers carved sleek seagoing canoes out of single Sitka spruce logs, built homes and carved totem poles out of red cedar and made canoe paddles and ceremonial items out of yellow cedar. When a mission from the Russian-American Company arrived in the early 1800s, an official remarked that “the rugged shores are covered with trees as thickly as wild animals are covered with fur.”

In 1867, the U.S. bought the Alaska territory from Russia — 586,000 square miles of forest, tundra, ice and rock. Many people at the time called it “Seward’s Folly” after Secretary of State William Seward, the main proponent of the $7.2 million deal — about $125 million in today’s dollars. Timber was far from Seward’s mind when he signed the deal. But two years later, in Sitka, he announced that: “No beam or pillar or spar or mast or plank is ever required in either the land or the naval architecture of any civilized state greater in length and width than the trees which can be hewn down on the coasts of the islands and rivers here.”

In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously fond of the wilderness, boxed off a patch of Southeast Alaska to establish a national forest called the Tongass; over years, he added more territory until eventually it took over the entirety of the region, around 16.5 million acres. It is by far the largest national forest in the country, more than two and a half times the size of the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest in California, the next largest, and five times bigger than Death Valley, the largest national park outside of Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is bigger than 10 American states.

National forests, however, are not conservation areas. The United States Forest Service is a division of the Department of Agriculture for a reason. The forests it manages were and to a large extent still are considered tree farms: public land managed for timber. The forest service today is the country’s second-largest landowner (193 million acres), its greatest roadbuilder (around 380,000 miles — 15 times the circumference of the globe at the Equator) and a relentless advocate for cutting the trees on the land it owns. At the time he demarcated the Tongass, Roosevelt wanted the forest service to ensure a continuous and eternal supply of timber for the growing nation. Gifford Pinchot, his first forest service chief, wrote in 1905 that the timber in the territory under his control “is there to be used, now and in the future. … The more it is used, the better.”

Some knew even then that Southeast Alaska’s timber was remarkable. Red cedar repels moths and is resistant to decay, making it excellent for furniture and shingles. Yellow cedar barely rots — dead ones standing even for decades have the same strength as live ones. Sitka spruce is lightweight and incredibly strong. It is prized for making musical instruments like guitars and pianos, and recently a test found a board 2.5 inches thick could bear the weight of a loaded train car. During the world wars, it was used extensively to make airplanes. As an article in “The Timberman” reported:

Here is a wood that the chiefs of aeronautic science of the world commandeer to make possible the building of their formidable air fleets. To spruce has been accorded the highest privilege for service ever conferred on any wood in the history of the world. It is the autocrat of timbers. Military genius bows before it. Its clean, milky color, fine texture and wonderful strength, combined with extreme lightness, has given it a place in a world’s struggle never enjoyed by any other wood since nations went to war. It bears its responsibilities with grace and ease. Its laurels are easily worn. It is an uncrowned king. Its value can hardly be measured. Through the creation of great air squadrons, the lasting peace of the world is hastened and democracy is made safe.

The Alaska territory’s early political leaders believed timber was the route toward stable and prosperous communities on the frontier. But it was not highly crafted goods like pianos and airplanes they sought to build the industry around. To establish a viable timber business in Southeast Alaska, they argued, meant pulp mills — “the basis for permanent development” in Alaska. Wood pulp is chemically or mechanically processed from trees to make paper, rayon and much else, and it is an extremely toxic thing to produce. Gazing upon the old-growth Tongass forests, Alaska’s political leaders called them “decadent” and “overmature,” not realizing that the massive trees that were decaying on the ground were providing an essential service to the health of the entire ecosystem, and they embarked on a relentless campaign to attract businesses that would raze it all to the ground.

It would take years for a viable pulp industry to take hold in Southeast Alaska. Though the region’s forests were unquestionably vast, they remained remote, the weather terrible and infrastructure nonexistent. Even to this day, the only roads that connect Southeast Alaska to the rest of the continent are at the far northern end of the panhandle. When Roosevelt was president and for decades afterward, Tongass timber looked like an investment only for the bold.

Eventually, the Ketchikan Pulp and Paper Company (in 1951) and the Alaska Lumber and Pulp Company (in 1956) signed agreements with the forest service for a total of 13.5 billion board feet of Tongass timber more than enough wood to build a boardwalk an inch thick and 10 feet wide from the Earth to the moon. The contracts obligated the forest service to make enough trees available for logging and pulping every year for half a century. A KPC official at the time said the company felt “assured of a perpetual supply of timber.”

“No beam or pillar or spar or mast or plank is ever required in either the land or the naval architecture of any civilized state greater in length and width than the trees which can be hewn down on the coasts of the islands and rivers here.”
— William Seward

The mills would eventually employ thousands of workers and make up a large percentage of the region’s economy. Decades of clear-cut logging ensued. In those days, there were essentially zero environmental standards. Many clear-cuts were hundreds of acres in size and extended along the banks of salmon streams right down to the ocean. Tractors hauled logs down hillsides, over muskeg and through rivers with no regard for the damage to the ecosystem.

At the mills, the trees were chipped by circular and band saws and then dumped into vast vats of chemicals, heated to high temperatures, bleached and formed into sheets of pulp. Toxic pollution spewed straight into the air and the ocean — into some of the most productive fisheries anywhere on Earth, water that teemed with salmon, trout, halibut, crabs, clams, oysters. In its early years, the KPC mill used as much water annually as the city of Seattle. It consumed enough timber each month to “make a floating bridge to Juneau, more than 200 miles to the north,” according to a company report. By 1982, it was producing 200,000 tons of pulp each year.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

Despite its minute size and far-flung location, Point Baker, at the far northern tip of Prince of Wales, has been a focal point of activism against clear-cut logging and the pulp industry in Southeast Alaska since around the time the town was established. Built upon the remnants of old Tlingit fishing camps, Point Baker exists because a handful of hardy people decided it was worth the extraordinary effort to carve out a life here on the edge of nowhere. They were (are) hippies, fishermen, loners, veterans, adventurers — rugged folks who saw wilderness and couldn’t leave.

There are no roads in the town. There is a floating post office, a floating restaurant that’s rarely open and a lodge where bear hunters and sport fishermen from the lower 48 come to get a taste of the wild. People here get around by skiff or kayak most of the time, or they walk from one house to another when the tide is out. Supplies and mail are flown in when the weather cooperates — and it frequently doesn’t, especially in winter.

“This is subsistence living on the last frontier.”

Weeks will go by with no visitors from the outside world. Up here, if something needs building, like a house or a shed, or fixing, like a boat engine or dock ramp or broken finger, Point Baker people will build it or fix it themselves. What food they need they fish or hunt. One or two people have greenhouses for vegetables. They eat what the land and sea provide — deer, salmon, steelhead, kale. This is subsistence living on the last frontier.

Point Baker’s residents are plenty happy being isolated, and they prefer to remain more or less undisturbed. “We’re the most ‘impoverished’ community on the island,” Don Hernandez told me, “and that’s the way we like it.” Don is the vice president of Alaska Rainforest Defenders. He arrived here in 1982 and built a cabin by hand out of the magnificent hemlock, spruce and cedar logs hundreds of years old that wash up on these shores. He would go out in his skiff and tow them back to his property, where he was living in a tent. He’d hook them to a winch, lug them out of the water up to his workshop and mill them into boards and beams and shingles and railings for the deck. Don stressed that his story is not unusual in Point Baker, that many people here do this. It took years to build the house. He did it in four sections. He likes to say he’s still building, always building. Recently, he put in a sauna. From a promontory facing east, his house looks out over Sumner Strait, and he and his wife can sit at his kitchen table and watch sea otters float in the kelp forest by the shore while humpback whales cruise past in the distance.

Over the years, Point Baker people have worked hard to protect what they’ve built. Clear-cut logging threatens their lives and livelihoods. During a meeting last year with Point Baker residents, a forest service official noted that they were “very knowledgeable” about forestry rules and management and “extremely critical” of increased logging activity. Don, Elsa and others are leaders in regional conservationist organizations. Perhaps the town’s greatest triumph came in 1975 when a group of residents, including Darlene Larson, who still runs the post office, successfully sued the forest service and effectively prohibited clear-cut logging in the entire Tongass. That victory lasted less than a year, and since then the chainsaws have been coming ever closer.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

After guiding us out of the Point Baker harbor, Elsa navigated the Murrelet down along the western coast of Prince of Wales. Humpbacks, otters and seabirds kept us company as we sailed slowly south. Watching the forested slopes of the island shift by, we talked about Alaska and wilderness — and what it feels like to be part of a generation of young people watching as ecosystems all over the planet slowly collapse.

“I’m trying to get beyond grief and fear,” Elsa said. “This exploration, where we’re confronting the carelessness and the irreverence of development and our society’s relationship with land, and on my home island where it all feels so personal — I have a sense that that journey is a journey more people should embark on. The only way I could think to inspire other people to do that is by making myself do it.” After checking our course and helping Gleb find the ramen, she went on: “It’s hard to know how to find a way to help people connect with the meaning of this land and why it’s valuable. I think that the most gratifying thing about this experience for me is bringing these people to these places and confronting them with the reality that this old-growth ancient forest that we’re in — it’s up to us to protect it.”

In the late afternoon, we cut east through a channel between two islands into Calder Bay. Mount Calder jutted up in the distance, a bald fist of limestone 3,370 feet tall. Along the shore nearby was a quarry that had once been a source of pure white marble. The land here is mostly karst, a porous limestone that creates elaborate formations of pillars, sinkholes and caves as it erodes over centuries. Just south of the quarry is the El Capitan Cave, Alaska’s longest, a warren of tunnels and chambers where scientists discovered the fossilized remains of ancient bears, foxes, wolverines and otters, some more than 12,000 years old.

We dropped anchor near the western side of the bay. A steep cliff rose up off the opposite shore. Ahead of us, at the inner part of the cove, a river washed out over a gravel delta. Elsa told us we should go ashore in the zodiac, a small inflatable boat with an outboard motor, to explore the forest; worried about the wind that had picked up in the early part of the afternoon, she wanted to stay aboard and wait for the forecast.

“This old-growth ancient forest that we’re in — it’s up to us to protect it.”
— Elsa Sebastian

Colin beached the zodiac, and the four of us all grabbed a handle to carry it away from the incoming tide. Colin had a flyfishing rod and went to look at the river. Mara went straight off into the woods, looking for inspiration for her watercolor paintings. “I’ve been thinking a lot about color,” she said. “I think you can tell the story of a place with color, and when something is no longer there, the colors are no longer there. I think it conveys a sense of the ecosystem too — the ways things are knitted together in a tapestry. It’s another way of conveying diversity.” She said that when she paints in watercolor, she uses whatever water is available to mix the paints. “I’ve painted with seawater before, I’ve painted with glacier water too. When I work in the field, all of my paints are made with the place.”

As we explored the forest along the shore, we found fat-bottomed hemlock and spruce that towered hundreds of feet above us. Hanging mosses festooned their branches. On the ground were massive logs covered with more moss, ferns and tree saplings. Everything was wet, spongy, green, alive — something that doesn’t happen when trees are clear-cut and removed, leaving the forest floor barren but for wood chips and ragged stumps.

We found a small slice of gravel beach at the forest’s edge and set up camp. We built a fire from driftwood and cooked chunks of an ancient yelloweye, an absolute monster of a fish that Elsa reckoned had been swimming the depths of the Pacific for a century. I borrowed a tent and pitched it on a bed of moss under the branches of the trees just off the beach. As the sun went down and the fire burned low, we looked out over the water at the Murrelet riding quietly at anchor. Seals hunted a school of fish in the shallow water, and the thrushes were singing in the trees. Around us guests of the rainforest was nothing but wilderness.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

Much of the land at Calder Bay is a designated roadless area. The roadless rule was established in 2001 by President Bill Clinton on his way out of the Oval Office, with the stroke of a pen preserving wilderness areas by banning road construction and logging on nearly 60 million acres of America’s national forests, about a third of the forest service’s entire land. The goal was to ensure that what forest was currently out of reach for timber companies remained that way. Much of what little remains of Alaska’s old-growth rainforest is in these roadless areas.

Some states, like Colorado, have their own versions of the rule and aren’t subject to the federal one, which is what Alaskan politicians have long fought for. This latest chapter of that effort was championed by Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was born in Ketchikan, one of Southeast Alaska’s largest towns, during timber’s heyday. Murkowski succeeded her father, Frank, as senator. Despite Frank’s best efforts, the collapse of Alaska’s logging industry happened on his watch. Between 1990 and 2004, according to a forest service estimate, more than 2,000 people lost timber jobs in Southeast Alaska. His daughter took up the fight to save what remains of the declining industry.

Last July, the forest service published an environmental assessment that offered several options about what to do with the roadless rule. They ranged from preserving protections on existing roadless areas to vastly shrinking them or eliminating them outright. An opportunity for people to comment — the forest service’s “collaborative process” — followed. More than 53,000 people weighed in. Trump’s chief of the U.S.D.A., Sonny Perdue — a former governor of Georgia who has called evidence of climate change a “joke” and once held a large ceremony to “reverently and respectfully pray up a storm” during one of Georgia’s worst droughts — announced the final decision yesterday. Roadless protections on the Tongass will be entirely lifted.

The decision runs against the state’s and the nation’s strong support for the roadless rule. A nationwide poll conducted last February by Pew Charitable Trusts found 75% of Americans support it, including 65% of Republicans and 77% of rural residents. Another poll three months later found 60% of Southeast Alaskans and 57% of Alaskans statewide want to keep it intact. The forest service itself admitted after an initial public feedback period in 2018 that “the majority of comments received opposed changing” the rule. “Majority” is an understatement. Ninety-six percent of the messages from the public were in favor of keeping roadless protections in place.

“Cutting and selling trees in Southeast Alaska costs the forest service (and American taxpayers) a great deal of money.”

Meanwhile, the importance of the timber industry to Alaska’s economy has been inexorably declining since the end of the pulp era. It is unlikely to come back. The tourism and fishing industries, both of which are threatened by increased logging, represented 21% of Southeast Alaska’s economy in 2018, and a quarter — more than 11,700 — of its jobs. Timber, by contrast, accounted for less than 1% of the economy and just 337 jobs.

What’s more, cutting and selling trees in Southeast Alaska costs the forest service (and American taxpayers) a great deal of money: millions of dollars to administer timber sales, millions more to build and maintain the roads used to access the trees. American taxpayers fund this preparatory work, and private companies reap the benefits. Though the forest service usually makes a profit selling timber in other national forests, in Alaska it does not. The returns it generates pale in comparison to the cost of making the timber available for clear-cutting — just 9 cents for every dollar spent, according to a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office. The Tongass remains too remote and rugged for a large-scale timber industry to be profitable without huge subsidies.

And so losses of millions of dollars a year are the norm up here. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, reported in September that since 1980 the forest service lost around $1.7 billion cutting down trees in Southeast Alaska — an average of $44 million each year. Over the next four years, the report found, if timber sales planned by the forest service (but temporarily halted by a federal judge) are allowed to go forward, taxpayers may lose over $190 million more.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine

Day two of the “Last Stands” expedition dawned cloudy and calm. After we broke camp in the morning, Colin, Gleb and I rode the zodiac back to the Murrelet. Mara kayaked. Elsa’s plan was to sail through a tight channel known as Dry Pass toward a lodge where I had arranged a ride back to my truck, which was still parked up at the landing near Point Baker.

There were old clear-cuts along Dry Pass, patches of young vegetation in the old-growth forest, and a sprinkling of dead yellow cedar standing stark white amid the green. At the top of a ridge to the south, a landslide had carved a dirty scar of brown through the forest. Bald eagles watched us from the tops of the navigation markers that alerted boat captains to shallow water and rocks in the narrow passage. Sea otters floated on their backs nearby, cracking shellfish and diving down into the kelp when we got close.

After a couple hours’ sail, we pulled up at a forest service dock. Elsa and I got in the zodiac and rode over to the lodge. It wasn’t open for the season and looked completely empty inside. There was no sign of my ride. Noting how creepy the abandoned building was, Elsa didn’t linger. There was a roadless area across the bay that she and Mara wanted to explore.

I pushed the door open and went inside. The phone worked, and I found a White Pages that listed a few numbers in Point Baker. I made a few calls. No answer when I tried Don at home. Darlene at the post office picked up and put me in touch with Don’s son Carl. Carl said he’d come down and get me, just as soon as he could find “a rig.”

I went outside, wandered around the lodge and watched the seals and the otters from the dock. Down the shore, the Murrelet sat quietly in the water, a lonely ship off the coast of one of the world’s last wildernesses. It started to rain. Elsa and Mara had raised a “Save the Tongass” flag up to the top of one of the masts. But there was no breeze to give it life, so it hung there limply as dark clouds gathered on the horizon.

Colin Arisman for Noema Magazine