A 47,000-pound steel claw painted fire-engine red hunches on the edge of Thorne Bay, looking like something that fell from a spaceship into this remote, forested cove on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. But locals don’t blink when they drive past “The Claw,” once one of the largest logging grapples in the world. They remember when its massive pincers hoisted bundles of 5-ton logs into the water like so many matchsticks. During the logging boom from the late 1950s through the ’90s, Sitka spruce that had towered over the island’s salmon streams since long before Europeans arrived on the continent were shredded in Ketchikan and dissolved into paper pulp.
Prince of Wales is part of the Tongass National Forest, which stretches across the 500-mile ribbon of land and maze of islands that constitute the Alaskan panhandle. It’s a wild, magical place, where glacier-fed waterfalls splash into fogshrouded fjords frequented by humpback whales and orcas. Black bears and coastal brown bears feast on five species of salmon, including king, sockeye and coho. Bald eagles seem as common here as pigeons in New York City, and the endangered marbled murrelet, an adorably chubby little seabird, builds its mossy nests in the oldest, largest trees.
For the first half of the 20th century, the Tongass, named after a Tlingit Indian clan and established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, was too isolated and undeveloped to be worth logging on a large scale. But after World War II, Congress jump-started the timber industry with the Tongass Timber Act, which helped establish pulp mills and subsidized the building of roads and other infrastructure. The Forest Service surveyed and sold off tracts of timber to the highest bidder, even though that frequently meant selling at a dramatic loss. By 2004, a few years after The Nature Conservancy launched its Southeast Alaska program, some 40 percent of the most ecologically valuable old-growth habitat in the Tongass had been logged.
Greg Boyd, now 60, moved out here in 1983 in search of adventure. He had worked as a logger in northern Michigan and dreamed of doing the same in Alaska. But, he says, “I wimped out as soon as I got up here and saw what the deal was: the size of the trees, the topography.” Instead of taking up the risky work of logging trees that can reach heights over 180 feet, he decided to get into the insurance business.
It was a smart move. Old-growth timber was getting scarce and clear-cutting regulations had grown stricter, which meant the profit margins were slimmer. The Claw was retired in 1994, and the pulp mill shut down a few years later. The slender, second-growth trees that grew back in the forest gaps had little value, and without thinning, these stands often grew so dark and dense that the understory became as ecologically barren as a cave.
But Boyd never forgot what drew him to Alaska in the first place, and in 2012, he became co-owner of one of the last sawmills on the island. Good Faith Lumber, just up the road from Thorne Bay, was a small mill with a big advantage: two kilns. Kiln-dried wood can be cut with precision, enabling the mill to manufacture high-value retail products like beveled cedar siding. It also had a four-sided planer to cut wood into rounded D-log siding—the kind used to build cabins—and into tongue-and-groove boards used for interior paneling.
From the Conservancy’s perspective, small sawmills like Good Faith point the way to the next chapter for Tongass. Developing new, high-value products out of second-growth timber could keep people employed in the industry and help restore forests by thinning dense stands—all while reducing economic pressure to log old-growth, says David Albert, the Conservancy’s Alaska chapter director for conservation science. “We want to protect the last, best remaining temperate rainforest watersheds on Earth but also provide economic stability to communities,” he says. Wholesale logging is no longer the backbone of communities like Thorne Bay, and new, greener enterprises are emerging with the Conservancy’s help.