Like many who care about Alaska’s economy and its world-class rainforests, I witnessed the recent news coverage on the Big Thorne timber sale as the latest boxing match over old growth logging. Each prizefighter staked out familiar ground — conservationists sued over old growth logging, industry claimed the sky was falling and the Undersecretary of Agriculture assumed the referee position.
Meanwhile, the promised transition out of old growth is dragging into the next decade as the mills and U.S. Forest Service claim they need to log old growth as a “bridge” to regenerating forests (second growth), originally cut in the 1950s, which are now ready to replace old-growth logging.
The truth is the Forest Service and industry can make the transition happen right now in line with Alaska’s economy, which has diversified since the 1950s into tourism, fishing and recreation sectors. The logging industry can either ensure its downward slide by continuing to push rainforests and wolves to the brink or opt for sustainability and prosperity for Alaskans. The time for change is now.
Recently, the Geos Institute together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, released a report by Mater Engineering (Corvallis Ore.-based forestry firm) on second-growth timber on the Tongass. Mater cooperated with the Forest Service, using their own timber inventory data for analysis, to provide an updated map and estimates of second growth available now and into the future. She also asked the Viking mill on Prince of Wales Island what it needed to make transition possible. Based on the Forest Service numbers and mill owner needs, Mater showed there is enough second growth right now to phase out old growth logging like the controversial Big Thorne sale. In just five years, there will be even more second growth to fast track transition while ending industrial-scale old growth logging across the Tongass.
The Forest Service claims it can’t “change the law” to cut the 55-year-old trees required to accelerate transition. In fact, the law actually gives the agency broad discretion to harvest younger trees simply by amending the Tongass Land Management Plan. The timber industry claims it can’t market younger trees even though it is already doing this on its own lands. The Forest Service can take a much-needed positive step to assist the timber industry with a pilot project to assess the milling needs for smaller trees and their lumber. This will help establish markets and the capital investment needed for mills to retool for processing smaller logs like what is already happening on the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon (“My Turn,” July 7).
The Tongass rainforest is just too important to squander more of its precious old growth. It is one of the world’s last remaining relatively intact temperate rainforests, its salmon runs are surpassed by none, and its magnificent forests play a pivotal role in stabilizing global climate change by absorbing and storing massive amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ten or more years of cutting old growth will irreparably harm these values and squash hopes for a win-win.
Swift action on the Tongass is needed by all parties as part of a robust Alaska economy where small is beautiful with respect to Tongass logs, economic sectors are compatible with what the rainforests can provide long-term, and what is taken out of the forest is processed locally. The Forest Service needs to shift out of its old growth program now. Industry can move Tongass small logs into the marketplace quickly without lawsuits. By backing second growth sales with logs processed locally, conservation groups can support an emerging sustainable industry.
Under California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, Alaska’s private landowners can also get involved by improving forest management practices and then selling “carbon offsets” on the open exchange. Millions of dollars already are changing hands to compensate proactive landowners who manage their forests to store more carbon so companies can purchase global warming pollution abatements. Southeast Alaska could be an incubator for innovative ideas like these instead of a battleground. All parties are talking transition, but it requires demonstrable actions now to succeed and not more foot-dragging.
Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist and president at Geos Institute and author of the award winning book “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation” (Island Press, 2011). He lives in Talent, Ore.
This column originally appeared in The Juneau Empire.