On June 1, 1977, biologist John Schoen first set foot on Admiralty Island in the Tongass National Forest. He’d been hired by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to study how logging affected Sitka blacktail deer. Brown bear tracks wended along the beach, migratory birds filled the bay, and mountains covered in old growth forest rose above him. “I couldn’t have thought of a better job,” Schoen said.
A week later, Schoen was sent to visit a logging site off the east coast of nearby Baranof Island. Much of the eastern portions of Baranof and Chichagof islands had been, or were in the process of being, clear-cut logged. Schoen and other biologists’ research soon made it clear that the way the Tongass was being managed, with a disproportionate emphasis on clear-cut logging, was destroying critical wildlife habitat.
Tongass Odyssey, which took Schoen five years to write, is an engaging mixture of memoir, science, and conservation history. The part of it that covers Schoen’s research on Sitka blacktail deer, mountain goats, and brown bears is fascinating, but Tongass Odyssey is also a story of science speaking truth to power. Schoen is at his most impactful with his argument to conserve the Tongass’ remaining old growth forest from clear-cut logging. His message couldn’t be more prescient as, against 96 percent of public comment, the testimony of southeast Alaskans, and the will of all six tribes that had been participating in the process, the Tongass was recently stripped of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule—a decision that opened significant portions of the remaining productive stands of old growth forest to clear-cut logging. “Time is running out on the Tongass. It’s not that there are going to be a lot of acres cut—it’s that the acres to be cut are incredibly vital parts of the ecosystem,” Schoen said.
Tongass Odyssey is an important book in the canon of North American conservation writing and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of Alaska’s wildlife.
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