Forestry technician Mary Dalton in a stand of alder in 1995. Following her appeal of an Environmental Impact Statement in 1996, the 16-year veteran of the Tongass was “surplussed” and transferred to the Coronado National Forest on the border with Mexico. (Daily Sitka Sentinal Photo/James Poulson)

Twenty years ago you’d be hard pressed to find anything made of Tongass alder. Although the hardwood is abundant in Southeast, and sought-after in the lower 48, the Tongass forest industry in the 1990s focused almost exclusively on old growth stands of spruce, hemlock, and cedar.

Advocating for alder in an old growth era could subject a Forest Service employee to scrutiny; speaking out against management practices could cost someone her job.

In Part 2 of our 2-part series on alder, KCAW’s Robert Woolsey explains how alder’s current renaissance is a vindication for one Forest Service employee.

Downloadable audio.

The Sitka Conservation Society has been “catalyzing” the development of small-scale timber in all species in the Tongass. Here SCS director Andrew Thoms prepares a meal in his kitchen made from Tongass alder. 25 years ago, forestry technician Mary Dalton recognized the importance of moving to more sustainable practices, but her voice was dramatically silenced. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Catalyst

For the last 8 years — over the course of the Obama administration — the Tongass National Forest has been trying to change direction. From the two big mills in Sitka and Ketchikan that dominated the pulp era of the 60s, 70s and 80s, to something smaller, using far fewer resources and second-growth trees.

O’Connell – My name is Chandler O’Connell and I’m the Sitka Sustainable Communities Catalyst at the Sitka Conservation Society.
KCAW – The what? The “catalyst”?
O’Connell – Indeed. (Laughs) I’m part of a regional network of people who are trying to make Southeast Alaska more prosperous in environmental, economic, and social terms, and SCS is my host organization.

And the transition to second-growth in the Tongass has cachet, with talented millenials like Chandler O’Connell building connections and markets — okay, catalyzing — new economies in second-growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar, and the once-completely ignored alder.

But it could be argued that we are at least 25 years behind the curve on this work. If O’Connell is the catalyst of the new Tongass, let me introduce you to the spark.

Mary Dalton

“And that spring we went out for about six weeks and just did nothing but one-meter plots where we were measuring alders. And I found very nice looking trees that were 30-inches in diameter, and were probably less than 40 years old.”

This is Mary Dalton, who was a forestry technician in the Tongass in 1992, working on the Northwest Baranof Environmental Impact Statement — or EIS. Dalton remembers studying alder in her coursework at Virginia Tech; its beautiful grain and workability made it a significant commodity in the Pacific Northwest.

But the Alaskan timber industry viewed alder differently.

“People called them alder plantations, but it was a joke because it was considered a damaged area with a lot of weeds on it.”

Alder is the first thing to grow anywhere the soil has been damaged in the Tongass. In the 1990s, Dalton was working for forester Bill Dougan in areas like Fish Bay, which had been clearcut around World War II by a method known as tractor logging — basically, bulldozers would turn a salmon stream into a road, and drag the huge spruce and hemlock logs down to the ocean.

“And as a result they came in alder — red alder in particular, because it loves disturbed soil,” says Dalton.

Despite her southern roots, Dalton was in love with Southeast Alaska. She arrived in the 1980s as a seasonal worker and in 1990, was put on the project to gather data for the Northwest Baranof timber sale. And that work changed her life.

The Backstory

1993 was a pivotal year for Sitka: The Alaska Pulp Corporation abruptly
shut down. APC blamed it on the cancellation of its 50-year contract with the Forest Service. 400 people were out of work in Sitka almost overnight.

The US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held three formal hearings in Alaska in 1995, in Anchorage, Wrangell, and Fairbanks. Chairman Frank Murkowski held this informal hearing in Sitka in August. Mary Dalton raised the possibility of alder at this hearing but said “they considered it a joke.” (Daily Sitka Sentinel photo/Reber Stein)

By 1995, US Sen. Frank Murkowski was trying to put together a plan to supply enough Tongass timber for a medium-density fiberboard plant in Sitka. Murkowski chaired the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and he expected the Forest Service to deliver over 200-million board feet of wood a year to supply the plant.

At a hearing in Sitka in August of that year, Forest Service tech Mary Dalton offered a different vision: one based on alder.

“My emphasis for that hearing was, Hey, We have no areas left where it’s easy to get high value timber. You have to pay highly for it, or you will tear up your salmon industry. However, we do have a product we could start a sustainable future with, and that is red alder.”

This was not what Murkowski or Dalton’s bosses wanted to hear. Things didn’t go too well after that.

KCAW — That was pretty inflammatory, I guess. In the culture…
Dalton — It was a joke to them.
KCAW — A joke?
Dalton — If you hadn’t been out and seen that 30-inch beautiful alder, way up in the back of the beyond in Fish Bay, after you had already done 150 plots and hadn’t found anything like that then you might not think there was any future in red alder at that time. You know, they weren’t aware that it had been, and probably still was, a valuable wood elsewhere. Because the focus of the market in Sitka was still pulp and high-value spruce.

Dalton argued that alder, when thinned, can grow into a substantial tree in only 40 years. These alders behind Sitka’s Kimsham Ballfields are reaching 20-inches in diameter after about 20 years. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Dalton wanted to make the case that alder — which grows in bamboo-like thickets if not thinned — just needed a some management. She had personally seen marketable trees. But she was only a tech, and lacked advanced degrees. And there was another problem.

KCAW — So you think that if you had had more qualifications and more education — maybe more specialization — could we have entered this alder phase sooner?
Dalton — Perhaps. But bear in mind that I don’t think women had an easy time in the Forest Service to tell you the truth. (Laughs) So even if I had a Ph.D. I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

Lacking a specialty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in biology. Dalton also did research on plant communities for the EIS. When the document was finally published, however, she felt it omitted much of the data her planning team had collected — data which would not have supported the volume of timber Murkowski was pressing the Forest Service to deliver.

In May of 1996 Dalton filed a formal appeal of the EIS, which earned her a 30-day suspension from the Sitka District. Shortly after that, she was “surplussed,” and transferred to the Coronado National Forest, which is in Arizona on the border with Mexico.

Dalton knew at the time that registering her objections to the Forest Service’s timber planning was “biting the hand that feeds you.”

“But at the same time, if you see something particularly that has your name all over it, and you know it’s not right — I felt I had to do something.”

Dalton joined other Forest Service whistleblowers in a lawsuit, and in 1998 her suspension was removed from her record.
A lot has changed since then. The agency allows staff to appeal planning documents. Dalton is retired, working part-time as a fire observer in Washington. She was pretty sure that this call from a reporter was an elaborate prank by Forest Service buddies. But as the Sitka Ranger District embraces the alder industry, now seemed like just as good a time as any to end her 21-year silence.

Dalton – Like I say it all worked out. Nobody was hurt or killed.
KCAW – All right. Nobody hurt or killed.
Dalton – Nope. Not in this case
KCAW – Okay.
Dalton – Livin’ the dream, son!

Note: In Part 1 of this series yesterday, we looked at the connections that helped create the developing alder economy in Sitka.