The Forests of Alaska: From Prehistory to Creation Of the Afognak Reserve
The Forests of Alaska
Alaska, purchased from Russia in 1867, was the last major area acquired by the United States that has been considered part of the original public domain and to which the public land laws have applied. The public lands and their resourcesamong them fur, minerals, timber, and agricultural landswere major influences in the development of national policy in the United States. This study is largely concerned with timber resources, although development of forest policy cannot be separated from other uses of the land. The forests of Alaska, therefore, should be examined in their regional setting.
The forests of southeastern Alaska are the northernmost stretch of a humid, West Coast forest that extends from the southern Oregon coast to Kodiak Island. It is composed of Sitka spruce and western hemlock in the southern Panhandle, with Alaska-cedar (yellow-cedar) and western redcedar in some areas. It is a dense rain forest, with a thick ground cover of devils-club, huckleberry, and other woody shrubs, and an abundance of fallen timber. Because of the heavy rainfall, this coastal forest has been little modified by the action of fire. The forest comprises a relatively narrow strip along the coast and islands, reaching up to an elevation of about 2,000 feet in the south and 1,000 to 1,500 feet in the north. The country is mountainous, and, except along inlets and river bottoms, the forest is largely located within three miles of the coast.
In the Cook Inlet and Kenai Peninsula area there is a transition from the coastal forest to that of the interior. There, the forest cover is not uniform but rather forms a mosaic, comprised of heavily timbered river bottoms, open woodlands, large areas of grasslands, marsh, old burns, and barren ridges and mountains. The timber is predominantly white spruce, black spruce, birch, and black cottonwood. From the Kenai Peninsula northward most areas of the inland forest have been damaged by fire. All of these forestlands, since the purchase of Alaska, have been owned and managed by the national government of the United States.
Land economists and historians have identified five major phases of federal land ownership in the American past. The initial one was that of acquisition, when the United States acquired territory by treaty, purchase, political maneuvering, or as the fruits of war to obtain satisfactory national boundaries and to extend these boundaries in the interest of security, national pride, or economic welfare. Next was the era of disposal, in which the public lands were used as a substitute for capital in helping to develop and settle the country; they were sold, leased, or given away to individuals, states, and corporations. The third stage was that of reservation, in which individuals became concerned over the consequences of unrestricted land disposal for a variety of reasons, ranging from the aesthetic to the scientific, and during which lands were reserved in federal hands to protect areas of unique scenic beauty, protect endangered species of wildlife, protect watersheds, or preserve forestlands.
The fourth period was one of extensive management, in which the government gave to the reserved areas management that was compatible with the state of scientific and technical knowledge of the time. We are now moving into the final era of intensive management; the body of technical and scientific knowledge is now sufficient to bring resource management to a stage of maximum productivity.
Alaska is unusual in that the time interval of the first four stages was accelerated. The period of acquisition was followed almost instantaneously by those of disposal, reservation, and extensive management. After a long period of extensive management, the transition to intensive management has occurred with dramatic suddenness. 
The first use of the Alaskan forests was by its original inhabitants. Here we find two widely different uses of, and influences on, the Alaskan forests.
The Indians of the southeastern Alaskan coast and islandsthe Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshianswere a people of plenty who lived on the bounty of the sea. Theirs was a wooden civilization. They developed an advanced, stratified, and highly complex culture, using the spruce, cedar, and hemlock forests for both utilitarian and artistic purposes. The great Alaskan forest favored the development of woodworking crafts, and the Indians developed methods of using steam and fire to supplement their advanced wood-splitting and carving skills. Houses were large, rectangular, gable-roofed dwellings built of logs and split boards. Water travel, a necessity in the coastal region, was carried on in canoes shaped by fire and adze. They ranged from ten or twelve-foot crafts for river travel to war canoes fifty or sixty feet long. They were usually propelled by paddle, but some had stepped masts and sails of cedar bark. Bows and arrows, fish spears, pikes, and lances were made of wood. Household furnishings were usually carved of wood or woven from cedar bark. Spruce roots were used in basketry, and rain clothes and hats were made from cedar bark.
Indian artistic and ceremonial life included an elaborate and sophisticated use of wood. The most striking examples of this use were in the elaborately carved cedar totem or mortuary poles, set up as mementos or to display the family crest. Intricately carved rattles, boxes, masks, and other objects were fashioned of wood and used in complex ceremonial rituals.
The coastal Indians had very little influence on the original forests. Villages were isolated, and the population density, though relatively dense by aboriginal standards, was not great. Consequently, the toll on timber was not heavy until the coming of the white man. The climate was such that there was very little danger of fire in this region. 
In the Alaskan interior the use of timber and the influence of the Indians on the forest was wholly different. Indians of interior Alaska were of the hunting and fishing, nomadic type, with neolithic civilization. Their influence on their natural habitat, however, was great. Inhabiting a boreal forest with an extremely high fire hazard in summer, they were the cause of innumerable fires.
In his excellent studies of fire in the boreal forest, Harold Lutz found accounts of many fires started by campfires that had been left smoldering. Smudge fires, used to combat gnats and mosquitos, probably caused more fires than any other single type. Fires made to heat pitch, used in gumming birchbark canoes, may have caused occasional forest fires. Alaskan Natives, like other primitive peoples, used fire in hunting, both to clear underbrush in moose drives and to kill trees for use in constructing caribou fences. 
Authorities have varied in their opinions as to the extent and culpability of the Indians as a cause of fire. William A. Langille, for example, felt that in their primitive state they had been extremely careful of fire. It seems certain that prior to the white man, however, aboriginal man was responsible for frequent and destructive fires in the boreal forest, and that these fires had profound ecological effects. 
The Russian Era
During the period of Russian occupation, the forests of Alaska received use characteristic of a frontier economic base of extractive industry. The forests were utilized largely as building material for the purposes of settlers. Houses, official buildings, and churches were made of wood, ranging from the massive stockades and government buildings at Sitka to individual wooden dwellings made of logs and held together with wooden pegs. Some shipbuilding was carried on at Sitka, Afognak Island, and Woody Island. Wooden dams and fish traps were constructed, and land on Kodiak Island and the Kenai Peninsula was cleared for agriculture. The Russians established a few sawmills, three of them near Sitka. They were small-capacity, waterpowered mills for the most part, though one was run by steam. But much of the lumber was laboriously whipsawed by hand. 
The effect of Russian occupation on the forest was inconsiderable. Contemporary photographs and paintings show the Russian settlements, like most frontier towns, as clearings in the forest. Around Sitka the supply of yellow-cedar was depleted, and Langille found evidence of extensive Russian cutting in his explorations of the Kenai Peninsula. Some fire damage in the Kenai and in the Kuskokwim regions was attributable to the Russians. 
Russian scientists collected and classified plants in Alaska, but the only major attempt at forestry was carried on in 1805. In that year a plantation of Sitka spruce was made on the Aleutian Islands at Unalaska, far beyond the conifer belt. Some of the trees have survived to the present day. 
In American public land policy, the period after the Civil War was marked by two contradictory tendencies. The trend toward exploitation of grazing and forestland increased. There were many causes, including developments in technology and engineering that enabled a speed-up in production, both in the woods and in the mills; the movement of the lumber industry from the Lake States to the West Coast; a liberal land policy and reluctance on the part of the government to punish timber trespass; the shift in business organization from individual owners or partnerships to corporations; a swelling demand for wood and wood products; and a close alliance between business and politics. 
During the same period, however, there developed countervailing forces, the roots of which were many and diverse. One was a growing appreciation of nature for aesthetic or recreational purposes and, with it, a desire to retain in public ownership areas of unique scenic, historic, or recreational value. A second and stronger force was the growth and professionalization of science and the desire to bring the forces of science and technology to the management of natural resources. The period after the Civil War was marked by the development of scientific agencies and bureaus of the national government, such as the Bureau of Fisheries, the Geological Survey, and the Division of Forestry, which supplemented the scientific work carried on earlier by the Topographical Engineers and the Smithsonian Institution. A third force was the desire by reformers, such as Carl Schurz, Theodore Roosevelt, and Senator George Edmunds of Vermont, to bring morality into public life and to check an often corrupt alliance between business and politics. 
In regard to the forested lands, the movement took many forms. Strong administrative officials like Carl Schurz and Edward Bowers recovered land illegally stolen from the public domain and made efforts to establish better land laws and policies. On the state level, men like Edgar Ensign of Colorado and John Waldo of Oregon petitioned Congress to establish reserves in the mountainous areas to protect city watersheds, perpetuate the forests, and provide recreational areas. The first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872, and groups like the Sierra Club and the Oregon Alpine Club agitated for more parks. In New York and in California, state park movements grew.
The early conservation movement was the work of many men, but the leader, both on the federal and the guild level, was Bernhard E. Fernow. A Prussian, educated as a professional forester, he fell in love with an American girl, followed her to the United States, and married her. Fernow's work in forestry began when ironmasters in Pennsylvania hired him to develop cutting practices that would perpetuate the supply of hardwoods needed in processing iron. In 1886 he became head of the Division of Forestry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a post he held until 1898. His term was marked by formidable accomplishments. He carried on a program of public education to inform the people of the need for forestry legislation, thus paving the way for constructive public laws. He aided Edmond Meany and George P. Ahern in establishing forestry education in Washington and Montana. Fernow carried on research in timber physics and in silviculture. He advised state legislators in the framing of state laws for forest protection and utilization, and he recruited into the forestry movement such men as George P. Ahern and Filibert Roth. 
Fernow's most lasting achievement was the passage in 1891 of the Forest Reserve Act, which permitted the president to create forest reserves from the public domain. There had been demand for such legislation for a long time from informed individuals, states and organizations. Bills were introduced in Congress from 1876 on, but they generally died in committee. Finally, in an omnibus bill dealing with revision of land laws, Fernow, with the aid of Land Commissioner Edward Bowers, was able to add Section 24, subsequently known as the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. 
Within two years after passage, a large number of reserves were created. Most were established by President Benjamin Harrison at the request of local interests and for a variety of reasons. The Ashland and the Bull Run forest reserves in Oregon, for example, were created at the requests of Ashland and Portland to protect their city water supplies. The Cascade Forest Reserve realized the dream of John B. Waldo to preserve the crest of the range in public ownership. The Pacific Forest Reserve, through demand of the cities of Tacoma and Seattle, was created so that Mount Rainier might be preserved unsullied in its natural setting. The reserves in California were established to protect city watersheds and areas of scenic beauty. These early forest reserves, created from 1891 to 1894, represented local interests and aspirations.  Such would not be the case in Alaska.
Alaska remained isolated from the forestry agitation characteristic of the other states and territories. The early records of the American Forestry Association show no Alaskan members. The civil government was of the most rudimentary nature, and the population was to a large degree transient, rather than made up of men who linked their fortunes with the territory.
Even factual information on Alaska's forest resources was lacking. Fernow's records of forestry investigation in the Division of Forestry show no Alaskan projects. For the most part, government reports on Alaska dealt very little with its timber resources. The most valuable of these early reports, with one exception, is that of William H. Dall, who dealt in some detail with the forests both of the interior and of the coast. 
The most important account of the Alaskan forests during the early years of American occupation is that of Ivan Petroff. Petroff had been stationed as a soldier in Alaska and in the mid 1870s collaborated with Hubert Howe Bancroft in historical research. Petroff wrote an account of Alaskan resources in a special report for the Tenth Census (1880), in collaboration with H. W. Elliot; and his account of timber resources is also printed in Bancroft's History of Alaska. Petroff wrote that the timber values of Alaska had been both exaggerated and disputed. He reported timber in commercial quantities in the Alexander Archipelago, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet, with an abrupt transition to grassland in Kodiak Island and the Kenai Peninsula. Cutting of yellow-cedar near Sitka during the Russian occupation, he reported, had "nearly exterminated" the species. He found Sitka spruce widely used for buildings, fuel, and sled runners, and by the Tlingit Indians to make canoes and planks. Hemlock was favored for fuel. He reported that there were a few sawmills in southeastern Alaska, largely producing for local use, but that dressed lumber was usually imported from Puget Sound or British Columbia. In western Alaska, a sawmill on Woody Island produced sawdust for packing use. Some shipbuilding was carried on, notably on Afognak Island. 
Some speculative interest in the Alaskan timber lands developed during the 1870s. In 1874 and 1876, bills were introduced in Congress asking for timber land to be sold to California corporations for shipbuilding purposes. The bill of 1874 asked for cutting privileges with the right of purchase after clearing the land. That of 1876 was to give the Alaska Shipbuilding and Timber Company the right to occupy the island of Kuiu, purchase timberland at $1.25 per acre, and allow cutting privileges on 100,000 acres of land in adjacent areas. William G. Morris, a special agent of the Treasury Department for Alaska, regarded the project as a land grab. Both bills died in committee. 
Between 1884 and 1891 frontier extractive industries utilized Alaskan timber more intensively. Mining activity increased rapidly, especially with development of the Treadwell mine on Douglas Island. Fishing also increased, and there was a greater demand for timber for piling, fish houses, and cannery buildings. In 1889 the governor of Alaska reported eleven sawmills in operation. Steam mills were located at Sitka, Metlakatla, Klawak, Howkan, Fort Wrangell, and Juneau; water-power mills at Sitka, Juneau, Klawak, Shakan, and Silver Bay. The major difficulty, he reported, was that there were no suitable laws by which the mill owner could acquire timberland. Agents of the General Land Office recognized the situation, and in a charitable spirit overlooked the trespass. Two years later, however, the governor reported that the Land Office had become less forgiving. Thirteen mills were held in trespass, and the Land Office began proceedings against them. The greatest offenders were the Wilson-Sylvester interests in Wrangell, who had allegedly cut in trespass 1 million board feet plus 3,000 logs; the William Duncan interests at Metlakatla, 3 million board feet; Alaska Mill and Mining Company in Douglas, more than 5 million feet; and Eastern Alaska Mining & Milling Company in Douglas, 300,000 feet.
The logging was primarily for hemlock and spruce; the hemlock was used for lumber and the spruce for salmon cases, barrels, and buildings. There was some utilization of western redcedar and yellow-cedar. Logging practices were of the most primitive nature, wrote the governor: "The loggers are not equipped with teams. They go along the margins and where they can fell a tree on the incline, they do so. It is trimmed well and started with logging jacks, and if everything progresses well it will shoot into the water."  The logs, in long lengths, were rafted to the mills. These practices and uses were typical for the period prior to forest reservations.
The initial forest reservation in Alaska came in through the "back door." It related to the conservation of salmon rather than to timber. The creation of the Afognak Forest and Fish Culture Reserve is a significant story in its own right, and it also demonstrates that from the beginning the conservation of Alaska's many natural resources was interrelated.
The U.S. Commission for Fish and Fisheries, established in 1871, was one of the scientific agencies that grew up in the 1870s. Spencer F. Baird, while director of the National Museum and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, observed during his summer vacations on the New England coast a depletion in the supply of food fish. Baird felt that there was need for research on American fisheries and on the whole ecology of oceanic life. In 1871 Congress established the Fish Commission by joint resolution. Baird, appointed to head the commission, recruited many dedicated men. The commission soon published a scholarly monograph on the fisheries of the Great Lakes; later studies were made of shad and other fish typical of the Atlantic, and experiments were made in establishing hatcheries for whitefish. In 1881 the commission obtained a vessel, the Albatross, a naval craft equipped for deep-sea bottom exploration. Baird cooperated with state and private groups in establishing fish hatcheries and had strong support not only from commercial organizations but also from the American Fish Cultural Association. His agency had powerful friends in Congress; by 1887 the budget for fish hatcheries alone totaled $161,000. Basically, the interests of the Fish Commission were research; they included operation of hatcheries, study of fishing methods, and recommendations on how to obtain a sustained yield of fish. 
The interests of the commission extended to salmon and thus to Alaska. Two hatcheries were established on the West Coast, one at McCloud in California and the other on the Clackamas River in Oregon. Moreover, the commission gave advice to state agencies and private individuals on the artificial propagation of salmon. During the 1880s the commission made a series of studies of salmon runs on the Sacramento, Columbia, Rogue, and Fraser rivers. By 1889 its interest extended to Alaska. 
Salmon harvesting in Alaska dates back to the Russian occupation and was continued on a small scale during the first decade under the American flag, most of the product being preserved by salting. The first salmon canneries were built in 1878 when two plants produced 8,159 cases. By 1883 this had increased to 48,337 cases, produced in six canneries. Two years later six canneries packed 83,415 cases. Both the annual pack and the number of canneries continued to in crease, although with some ups and downs. By 1889 there were thirty-seven canneries with a pack of 719,196 cases, and the pack topped the million-case mark for the first time in 1899, although only thirty-two canneries operated in that year.
Government studies of the Alaskan salmon fisheries began during the 1880s, the first being by Ivan Petroff for the 1880 census. The Albatross made cruises to Alaskan waters, and the reports of the Fish Commission for 1884 and 1887 included accounts of Alaskan fisheries. The immense pack of 1889, however, both attracted the attention of canners and drove down the price of salmon. Congress, prompted by the Fish Commission, became aware of the danger that Alaskan streams might become overfished and the salmon runs destroyed by reckless and improvident fishing. Consequently, on March 2, 1889, Congress passed a bill for the protection of salmon, forbidding the erection of "dams, barricades or other obstructions in any of the rivers of Alaska, with the purpose of impeding the ascent of salmon or other anadromous species to their spawning grounds." In addition, Congress "authorized the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries to investigate the habits, abundance, and distribution of salmon in Alaska, and the present conditions and methods of fisheries, in order to recommend to Congress additional legislation." 
Baird appointed Tarleton H. Bean, the commission's ichthyologist, as head of the investigating group. Bean had previously visited Alaska. Franklin Booth, a cartographer, and Livingston Stone, who had been in charge of the California and Oregon hatcheries of the Fish Commission, accompanied him. They were instructed to make an intensive examination of the Kodiak and Afognak Island areas and to study the natural history of the salmon, the conditions, methods, and statistics of salmon fisheries, and the artificial propagation of salmon on the Alaskan rivers. The party carried on investigations during most of August 1889. They found that gill nets, traps, and seines were used; but the bulk of the catch was by haul seines, which swept the estuaries of the small rivers or were laid from and landed on beaches adjacent to the mouth of a river. This process covered all approaches to fresh water and effectively prevented fish from moving up stream. Gill nets were often stretched from bank to bank, as well.
Livingston Stone's particular interest was in the establishment of fish hatcheries, and he and Booth visited Afognak Island. They found two canneries at the mouth of the river, the source of which was Afognak Lake. Ascending the river, they noted a dense growth of spruce and an abundance of salmonberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. The stream, except from a small waterfall and a ruined fish trap that dated from the Russian occupation, was without obstruction. Aside from the canneries, there was a small village of about forty dwellings, inhabited seasonally by Natives for harvesting salmon and berries. 
The Fish Commission made a preliminary report in 1889 and another in 1892. The latter noted that since the investigation in 1889 there had been violations of the law forbidding erection of obstructions to spawning salmon in the Alaskan stream. The Albatross had investigated such a fish trap on the Wood River, and of this T. H. Bean wrote:
As fish conservation measures, the Fish Commission recommended a closed season each week, from Saturday evening to Monday morning, and a closed season during September and October of each year; prohibition of the capture of salmon by use of nets or other apparatus within 100 yards of the mouth of any river; the prohibition of more than one seine in the same seine berth; and regulation of the taking of salmon, and limitation of the catch by the Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Finally, the Commission recommended "the establishment of national salmon parks or salmon reservations, as proposed by Dr. Livingston Stone," as a means of keeping up reproduction. 
Stone's proposal for a national salmon park, as set forth in a paper read before the American Fisheries Society, was a significant and influential piece of conservation literature. It was reprinted in Forest and Stream, which under George Bird Grinnell's editorship had emerged as a major national publication in regard to conservation and sport. Stone drew an analogy between the fate of the salmon and that of the buffalo; he felt that parks for salmon would preserve the species, just as Yellowstone Park was playing a role in preserving the buffalo. He pointed out that the yield of Atlantic salmon was scanty and that there had been a decline in salmon production on the Pacific Coast. He wrote in an eloquent passage:
He dealt not only with overfishing but with the advance of civilization and particularly water pollution, which made the streams uninhabitable for salmon and other fish. The growth of the country, and particularly the growth of industry, had limited the salmon on the Atlantic coast. In California the debris from mining activities had driven the salmon out of all tributaries of the Sacramento except the McCloud and the Pit rivers. Later, railroad buildings and the establishment of a sawmill destroyed the salmon runs on the McCloud. Similarly, sawmilling toward the headwaters of the Clackamas destroyed the value of the government hatchery on the Oregon river.
In order to save the Alaskan salmon, Stone felt that artificial propagation would do part but not all of the work. Suitable places, he wrote, "can not be relied on to a certainty when they are found, for they are always in danger from logging, mining, railroad building, lumbering, manufacturing, and other causes."
Stone therefore recommended that a salmon reservation be established on Afognak Island. The streams there, particularly the Litnik, which drained Afognak Lake, were well adapted for establishment of a hatchery. The island streams included all varieties of salmon in the Pacific. The climate was mild. There were no mines, mills, or railroads on the island. There were no private holdings of property. There was sufficient timber to utilize for buildings, flumes, and construction of boats, and Natives from a village near the proposed site of the hatchery could serve as a work force. 
Stone's eloquent plea was heeded. The General Revision Act of March 3, 1891, in which the highly important Section 24 permitted the president to set aside forest reserves, included several other sections that related to Alaska. Section 11 permitted Alaskan town-sites to be platted; Section 12 permitted application of the Trade and Manufacturing Act to Alaska, with the individual permitted to take up 160 acres of land for establishing mills or canneries at $2.50 per acre; and Section 14 permitted the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries to establish fish culture stations on Kodiak and Afognak islands. 
The act was soon utilized. At the request of the Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Benjamin Harrison created by executive proclamation on December 24, 1892, the Afognak Forest and Fish Culture Reserve. President Harrison stressed the values of the island, both for timber and vegetation and as a site for fish hatcheries.  Thus Alaska's initial forest reserve came about through concern for salmon conservation. Afognak's major significance is that it was the first forest reserve to be created in Alaska and the only one to be created primarily for fisheries purposes.
Last Updated: 06-Mar-2008