Tongass EIS proposes transition to young-growth harvest

The future of timber management in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is beginning to take shape.

On Nov. 20, the U.S. Forest Service released the first draft of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, needed to amend the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan with five alternatives for managing the federal forest that dominates the region.

At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation’s largest national forest and encompasses about 90 percent of Southeast Alaska.

An emphasis to shift away from harvest of the forest’s old growth hemlock, spruce and cedar is evident in the Forest Service’s preferred EIS option. Alternative 5 would phase out old-growth timber harvest over 15 years and would not allow any harvest — young- or old-growth — in roadless areas defined by the 2001 Roadless Rule.

Old-growth harvest that would be allowed in previously designated areas would be limited to commercial thinning or 10-acre openings, with removal of no more than 35 percent of available timber. A 200-foot “no-cut buffer” from the shoreline inland would be instituted along beach and estuary areas open to harvest.

The preferred alternative was a unanimous recommendation from the Tongass Advisory Committee, according to a release from the Tongass office of the Forest Service.

The 15-member Tongass Advisory Committee was formed in early 2014 to steer the direction of the latest management plan. It is comprised of three members each from five stakeholder groups: Alaska Native tribes and corporations, conservation organizations, government, the timber industry and other commercial users.

In July 2013, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a memo directing Tongass management to be more ecologically, socially and economically sustainable, while accelerating the transition to predominantly young-growth timber harvest by the region’s remaining timber industry.

Other alternatives would allow harvest of any-age timber in inventoried roadless areas that were developed before the Roadless Rule took effect in 2001 and during the period that the Tongass received an exemption from the executive order. Additional options would limit young-growth harvest as well.

According to the Forest Service, less than 10 percent of old-growth habitat in the Tongass has been converted to young-growth; however that percentage is much higher for some types of old-growth habitat, such as lowland and large tree areas.

The Alaska Forest Association, which represents the state’s timber and sawmill industry, is quick to point out that under the current management plan, for each acre scheduled for future timber harvest there are 24 acres managed for uses other than logging in the Tongass.

Timber harvest in the forest has declined by more than 90 percent since enactment of the Roadless Rule in 2001 — prohibiting further development of many National Forest lands. At its peak in the 1980s the timber industry supported nearly 4,000 jobs in Southeast. Today, there are about 300 timber-related jobs in the region, according to the state Labor Department.

Emily Ferry, deputy director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said the Forest Service’s preferred alternative steers away from logging in the “salmon strongholds” the organization has sought to protect.

“It has been a long-term goal of ours to make sure those salmon strongholds aren’t cut and at first blush (the Forest Service) isn’t planning to log those areas,” Ferry said.

She noted at the same time a worry about continuing to harvest old-growth timber, which just perpetuates the classic controversy surrounding the timber industry in the Tongass, Ferry said.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said current young-growth stands in the Tongass simply aren’t mature enough to be useful to the region’s sawmills designed to cut larger trees.

“We always planned to transition (to young-growth harvest) but we wanted to do it so sawmills could start cutting the products they do now out of the larger logs,” Graham said. “By continuing the old-growth harvesting now we would build more acres of young-growth so that once the mills transition into the young-growth they can sustain it.”

By allowing young-growth stands to mature another 30 years, the board feet available per acre would double, he said, which would also reduce the footprint made by harvesting a given amount of timber.

Most young-growth trees in the Tongass today are suitable only for low-grade construction lumber and the distance from the Lower 48 market puts Alaska mills at a competitive disadvantage, Graham said.

The market for exporting raw logs to Asia has grown, but that means the value-added manufacturing opportunity drawn from lumber is lost, a concern shared by Ferry and Graham.

“We are not making the most of each board foot when we cut a round log, an unprocessed log, and send it to Asia,” Ferry said.

Finding a way to quickly transition to young-growth timber harvest and still maximize the value of the lumber is imperative, she said, because no one in Alaska is benefiting from the current Tongass timber situation.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/02/2015 - 2:19pm