Caves in the Karst - Archaeologically, Recreationally, and Ecologically Valuable
March 19, 2008
According to information provided by the Sitka Conservation Society, the bill would authorize Sealaska to select up to 95,000 acres for economic development lands allowing for extraction of timber from these lands. Because the legislation would remove federal protections from these lands, Alaska law would govern logging on the economic development lands. Alaska law provides only minimal standards and does not protect some of the fragile resources contained in the selected areas. In the past, Sealaska has devastated many important areas in Southeast Alaska due to poor logging practices and low accountability as a private landowner according to Natalie Sattler, Sitka Conservation Society's Community Outreach Coordinator.
Many of the economic development lands selected by Sealaska are located on unique karst landscapes that overlie hidden features such as caves said Sattler. These caves are important to humans for scientific, educational and recreational purposes and are an important resource that merits protection she said.
Karst, which is the material where caves are formed, is a unique landform created by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock, such as limestone. Karst develops over thousands of years and results in unusual features such as spires, sinkholes, rock fins, disappearing streams and caves. Karst features and caves have been affected by millions of years of changing geologic and climatic conditions. The presence of karst also helps trees grow bigger and stronger. The soil is thin but rich in nutrients and the limestone helps anchor the trees against the wind. The network of underground, interconnecting fissures and cavities and caves associated with karst transport nutrients throughout the old growth forest. Sattler said because the soils are typically thin on karst, when the protective canopy and vegetative cover are removed, these soils can literally drain into and fill the subsurface cavern, plugging cave entrances. When the caves clog, the drainage they provide the old growth forest is destroyed.
Sattler noted that some of the highly developed karst areas where significant caves are located include Kosciusko Island, Tuxecan Island and parts of Prince of Wales Island. Kosciusko in particular is one of the great karst islands that contain hundreds of significant caves - there are almost 200 inventoried caves on Kosciusko alone and numerous others await discovery. The Tongass Cave Project has been exploring these regions for several years; mapping resources and discovering substantially developed caves that reveal secrets about the biological, cultural and paleontological history of the Tongass. Some very important caves with major paleontological and cultural resources are included in some of the land selections proposed by Sealaska, such as On Your Knees cave where human artifacts over 10,000 years and brown bear bones over 35,000 years have been discovered (Heaton 2002). In addition, according to the Sitka Conservation Society, many yet to be discovered caves and resources could be lost and destroyed if Sealaska develops these hidden treasures.
"If this bill goes through it would convey to Sealaska some of the most highly developed karst areas on the Tongass National Forest," according to Barbara Morgan, a local caver and participant in the Tongass Cave Project.
Natalie Sattler, Sitka Conservation Society's Community Outreach Coordinator, noted there are federal laws that protect these hidden treasures that would no longer apply if Congress conveys these karst landscapes to Sealaska. The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 applies to all karst features on the Tongass National Forest and protects any "significant" cave with geological, hydrological, archaeological, mineralogical or biological value (Busch 1994). The 2008 revision of the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) also provides specific protections designed to maintain natural karst processes and the productivity of karst landscapes.
These protections, however, do not apply to private land noted Sattler. Sealaska logs its lands according to the 2003 Alaska Forest Resources and Practices Act, which does not mention karst. In addition, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources "does not recognize karst topography as a significant resource to be managed on the State's limited land base in southeast," (DOF 2007). Sealaska land selections also overlap with close to 7,500 acres of the Forest Service's Geologic Special Interest Areas, where logging is prohibited to protect globally significant karst resources, although this protection is again negated if Sealaska receives the land according to the Sitka Conservation Society.
"Many places in the selected areas contain caves and offer potential for undiscovered substantially developed caves. These caves would not be protected once transferred to Sealaska," comments Connie LaPerriere, involved with the Tongass Cave Project where she has helped out with caving expeditions on Kosciusko Island.
Kevin Allred, from Ketchikan and one of the founders of the Tongass Cave Project, sums it up, "karst lands are a national treasure of international significance. Kosciusko Island itself is deemed one of the top ten Endangered Karst Ecosystems by the Karst Waters Institute. These areas need to remain in public hands."
Sealaska is the largest private
landowner in Southeast Alaska and the largest for-profit private
employer. Sealaska's wholly owned subsidiaries are Sealaska Timber
Corporation, Alaska Coastal Aggregates, Sealaska Environmental
Services, Olympic Fabrication, LLC and Synergy Systems, Other
subsidiary businesses include the Nypro Kánaak joint ventures
and Managed Business Solutions.
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