Logging in southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest made news again this week when Sen. Lisa Murkowski questioned Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell about why he isn’t doing more to boost timber harvesting in the 17-million-acre rain forest.
Despite fisheries and tourism serving as the centerpiece of the region’s economy, Sen. Murkowski criticized Tidwell at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee budget hearing on Thursday about his efforts to supply enough wood to keep the southeast Alaska timber industry afloat.
Tidwell responded that he plans to double the amount of volume coming off the Tongass over the next two years – from an average of 35 million board feet per year to 70 million, noting that the largest Tongass old-growth timber sale in decades, Big Thorne, was approved last year.
“It’s not adequate,” Tidwell said.
Trout Unlimited, and many other sport fishing and outdoor advocates, disagree.
TU opposes the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island, an already heavily-logged part of the Tongass, as damaging to fish habitat and a waste of taxpayer money. We have advocated instead that the Forest Service redirect a portion of its budget that currently goes toward timber harvesting into growth sectors of the economy, such as fishing and tourism that account for more than a quarter of the region’s jobs. In contrast, timber and road building contribute to a less than one percent of Southeast Alaska employment, and yet receive nearly 40 percent of the Forest Service’s Tongass budget, or about $20 million a year.
“We think the pace of the Forest Service’s Tongass transition from old-growth logging to second-growth and other industries like fishing and tourism is moving too slowly. The real drivers of Southeast Alaska’s private-sector economy are seafood and visitor services. They are billion-dollar industries that provide thousands of the jobs in the region and yet the Forest Service just pays them lip service while continuing to prioritize its budget and staffing on old-growth logging,” said Mark Kaelke, TU’s Southeast Alaska project director.
“Change is hard. It’s even harder when the Forest Service refuses to recognize and embrace it. The agency continues to spend millions every year to subsidize the Tongass timber industry. It’s really fiscally irresponsible. We need a new business model on the Tongass. People don’t visit the Tongass to see clear-cuts. They come to catch huge, wild salmon and see gorgeous scenery. The economy of the region has grown beyond the Forest Service’s continued focus on subsidized timber sales,” Kaelke said.
TU would like to see the Forest Service make good on its 2010 pledge to transition away from old-growth timber and diversify its focus to support economic sectors that provide long-term benefits to a stable southeast Alaska economy.
“In today’s hearing, Sen. Murkowski referred to recreation and tourism as economic engines of the ‘future’ in need of increased investment. While I’m encouraged she recognizes the industry as an economic driver, the fact is that future she speaks of is now. The tourism industry in Southeast Alaska is the largest private sector employer in the region and the top revenue generator for the Tongass National Forest. Unfortunately, the way the Forest Service prioritizes its budget tourism takes a back seat,” said Laurie Cooper, Alaska Recreation and Tourism Industry Liaison, Trout Unlimited.
“There is widespread recognition that Tongass management and budget issues are hindering the agency’s capacity to meet the needs of the Tongass recreation and tourism industry. It’s time for Congress and the Forest Service to prioritize and increase investments in the Tongass recreation program to support the strong and growing industry which depends upon access to and management of wild landscapes,” Cooper said.