In the hottest Alaskan summer on record, amid countless signs of a climate in crisis, a camera phone captured a Republican fundraiser on Kenai Peninsula.
Judging from the laughs and smiles, you’d never know that they are a few dozen miles from the Swan Lake Fire, now burning for over three months. But the mood is giddy because a surprise caller is on speaker – President Trump.
Holding up the phone in one hand and swatting at late-season hornets with the other, Sen. Dan Sullivan nods and grins as Trump promises to fulfill a Republican wish list that environmentalists have been fighting for generations.
He mentions drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge way up north and building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in the south. “King Cove Road! Yessir!” says Sullivan as Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker nods with vigor.
Enter Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has been bonding with Trump during Air Force One refueling stops, often bringing a list of rules and restrictions he wants overturned. With oil prices down, Alaska’s budget is deep in the red and Dunleavy is looking for other industry to help.
“He’s a great guy,” Trump says of Dunleavy over the speaker. “And he’s doing something with your logging and all your other things. We’re working on that together and that’s moving along.”
While nature lovers and earth scientists have been fighting Alaskan politicians over ANWR and King Cove Road for decades, Trump’s mention of “logging” reopens a different front in an old war because everyone knows he’s talking about Tongass, the crown jewel of the National Forest system.
Spread across the islands and fjords of the Alaskan panhandle, Tongass is roughly the size of West Virginia, full of towering old growth spruce, cedar and hemlock, some trees twice as old as America itself. It traps and hold so much carbon, it’s known as “America’s Amazon.”
The pristine wilderness holds a bounty of salmon, bears, wolves, eagles and whales living alongside around 70,000 people.
And in the little town of Tenakee Springs, the reaction is “one of shock and dismay.”
“After all the work that we put in to keep this area roadless and keep this as pristine as we possibly can,” fishing captain Tuck Harry says as he shakes his head.
“And would you characterize yourself as sort of a tree-hugging liberal?” I ask him.
He laughs. “No, not at all. Not a tree-hugging liberal at all,” he says, looking across a mirror-flat Tenakee Inlet at hillsides once scarred by clear-cuts.
He’s been here since 1960, back when the Forestry Service treated Alaska more as America’s lumberyard than sanctuary. In an effort to create jobs in the “Last Frontier,” thousand-year-old forests were pulped into paper.
But after years of legal battles and negotiations, a Clinton-era “roadless rule” seemed to settle the issue, protecting Tongass from any new logging or mining interests.
But Trump’s fundraiser call last month confirmed reports that he would encourage Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt Tongass from the roadless rule, opening almost 10 million acres to development.
“As Governor, I’ve raised this issue with the Trump administration on numerous occasions – each time underscoring the need to restore the Tongass’ multiple use mandate to allow for activities such as tourism, timber, mining, hydropower and more,” reads a statement to CNN from Dunleavy.
But the former mayor of Tenakee Springs, Art Bloom, says it is impossible to have all of those industries in Tongass at the same time. Alaska has to choose.
“People on cruise ships don’t want to look at denuded hillsides,” he says “They come here because of what’s still here. They wouldn’t be coming here if it was a bunch of stumps.”
Bloom, a fish biologist who came up to Alaska in the 70s and is now a commercial salmon fisherman, explains the importance of the land to the sea. Walking across the spongy forest floor, he says intact old-growth forest is the only reason Alaska has such a thriving fishery.
“Along the streams, the trees keep the water temperatures cool. So the salmon depend on the trees to reproduce. The trees depend on the salmon to bring nutrients in from the ocean,” he says. “You could never have this again once you cut it. It’s going to come back as an even-aged stand that needs to be managed and that is a plantation and not a forest. And that won’t support the wildlife that this supports.”
His daughter Lindsay Bloom, herself a fishing captain and now a strategist for the Salmon State advocacy group, has her eye on the future and what she wants for her young children.
“First of all, health and wellness, and clean air, clean water and food supply,” she says. “And then secondly, when I think about their future jobs, it’s something they can do that regenerates itself. Like we’re really proud of being fishermen, you know, because it’s regenerative and multi-generational. And if we manage it right, we can do it forever.” But she’s worried that is now at risk.
Logger Gordon Chew acknowledges: “There’s nobody in this town that a mile of road here or there would benefit more than me.
“A mile of road built into an area that’s never been logged would be almost a lifetime of selective logging for me,” he says.
Chew runs a milling company with his son. While he believes that old growth can be sustainably harvested one tree a time, he is terrified of a return to the clear-cutting days of the past.
“When you build a road, you don’t know what’s going to come down the road. And the reason that you would build a million-dollar-a-mile road is to extract resources big time … We’re just very much against that,” he says.
While fishing and tourism make up a quarter of southeastern Alaska’s economy, timber provides less than 1% with a total of 354 jobs in 2017, according to the Southeast Conference, a coalition of communities and businesses in Alaska. But much the way Trump has vowed to help the outdated industry of the coal miners in the Lower 48, Dunleavy seems determined to boost the number of lumberjacks.
“As a resources-oriented state, with the highest unemployment in the nation, we continue to work with our federal partners towards solutions that support economic growth and opportunity,” reads the Governor’s statement.
But fishing guide Tuck Harry urges him to take a wider view.
“I have many, many logging friends, but even a lot of them are now on the side of protecting the environment,” he says with a gravely growl.
“When I go down and talk to some of my oldest friends of 35 years, they can see what’s happened. They can see the degradation of the streams down there. That’s not what we want to have happen here,” he says.
“So to the governor and the president, this is what I’m saying: Do not do this to us.”