GUEST COMMENTARY: Stop Roadless Area plan, return to multiple use in Tongass
The Clinton Administration imposed the Roadless Rule on the Tongass in 2001. The Forest Service’s failure to correctly describe the volume of timber needed to meet market demand in the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement caused the Ninth Circuit to enjoin most timber sales associated with the Plan in 2005, pending a new Forest Plan which was produced in 2008. Now Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack wants to significantly amend the 2008 Forest Plan by directing a 10- to 15-year transition to second-growth timber.
Along with terminating the long-term pulp mill contracts, and modifying its domestic manufacture policy (which in the 1970s provided 4,500 direct jobs in Southeast), each of the actions mentioned above has been a disaster for the timber industry and Southeast Alaska. There are fewer sawmills now than in 1900, and far less volume harvested.
Amending the Forest Plan, as the Secretary proposes will cause the greatest harm of all. This is because the purpose of the transition to second growth is a blatant attempt to prevent entry into Roadless Areas, which the current Forest Plan allows. This policy will not only adversely affect timber, but renewable energy development, including hydropower and geothermal, and mining as well. Restricting access in this way effectively destroys multiple use of the Tongass.
Because of these terrible impacts, Gov. Sean Parnell appealed the Court’s 2011 reversal of the Exemption to the Roadless Rule that my Administration negotiated in 2003. He has re-filed the lawsuit against application of the Roadless Rule to the Tongass that Gov. Tony Knowles originally filed in 2001. The Congressional Delegation has introduced legislation in the House and the Senate to set aside application of the Roadless Rule to the Tongass.
Instead of reinforcing the Roadless Rule, Secretary Vilsack should engage in rulemaking to correct the errors the Court found in the 2003 Department of Agriculture rulemaking that exempted the Tongass pursuant to the July 2003 settlement agreement that my Administration negotiated with the Justice Department.
The premise of the Secretary’s directive that the Forest Service can prohibit entry to the 9.6 million acres of Roadless Areas because there will be sufficient second growth available to support a viable timber industry in 10 to 15 years is simply false for the following reasons:
1. When he first proposed this idea to the Tongass Futures Roundtable in May 2010, courageous Tongass-based Forest Service employees told him that it would not work. That is why no effort was made to amend the Forest Plan to implement the Transition then;
2. His apparent belief that environmental groups will support harvest of old growth timber outside of Roadless Areas (to allow the 10 to 15 years which even he agrees is necessary) is belied by the seven administrative appeals of the Big Thorne Sale, which has delayed the award of that Sale to who knows when;
3. A significant portion of the second growth inventory is located in the 1,000-foot coastal buffer zones and stream buffers where the old time loggers first started. The Forest Plan and the Tongass Timber reform Act preclude timber harvest in those areas;
4. The National Forest Management Act prohibits the harvesting of timber until it is mature. In the Tongass that is 90 to 100 years. The oldest second growth we have (other than on Admiralty Island) is 60 years old. Even Secretary Vilsack admits in his July 2, 2013, Directive that Congress will have to change the law to allow the Transition;
5. Preventing timber harvest before a stand matures was a key demand achieved by national environmental groups in the NFMA in 1976. Secretary Vilsack knows that they will not agree to it. That’s why he plans to amend the Forest Plan before attempting the change needed in the NFMA to make it work;
6. At page 23 the 2010 Economic Analysis of Southeast Alaska, which analyzed the Secretary’s Transition Plan, it states “young growth management is not currently economically viable without substantial public investments to pay for thinning.” Given fiscal constraints where’s the money coming from to pay for this? Secretary Vilsack knows that Congress will not agree to it. That’s why he plans to amend the Forest Plan before attempting to obtain the appropriations needed to make it work.
What is Secretary Vilsack’s reason for taking such an irresponsible and reckless position regarding the Tongass? Is he taking the same personal interest in other National Forests? Is it coming from him or from environmental groups pressuring the White House?
In conclusion, we need our political leaders to continue to fight to get rid of the Roadless Rule. And, we need to oppose the Secretary’s Transition Plan amendment to the 2008 Amended TLMP because its purpose is to reinforce the Roadless Rule and because it is a fraud. We need to return to multiple use management of the Tongass.
Frank Murkowski was the governor of Alaska from 2002-06 and a U.S. senator for Alaska from 1981-2002.