Kuiu Island (pronounced “Q-you”) is the 15th largest island in the U.S. and sits in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. The island provides world-class habitat for bears, eagles, salmon, trout, deer, and numerous other species of wildlife, fish, and fowl. Yet, through the years, Kuiu has been subjected to numerous and massive clear-cut timber sales by the Forest Service that have severely compromised the old growth hemlock, spruce and cedar forests upon which these species depend.
Kuiu was heavily logged in the 80s and 90s, and now those clear-cuts are covered in dense second-growth forest that provides little utility to fish and wildlife. The importance of the remaining old-growth stands cannot be overstated.
In the last decade, the Forest Service has consistently targeted this island for old-growth timber sales. Despite the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on infrastructure and preparation for these sales, and minimum bid requirements that offer to sell the trees for pennies on the dollar, so far there have been no buyers.
Currently this timber sale is the focus of a lawsuit over how timber sales are administered and the lack of adequate environmental review.
Because past logging on Kuiu Island targeted the largest, most profitable trees, cutting them down at an unsustainable pace, the Island simply doesn’t have any more old-growth forest to give and timber operators can’t make new timber sales there pencil out. If we’re just talking dollars, the annual $1 billion visitor industry and $1 billion commercial and sport salmon fishing industry, both of which directly rely on high quality wildlife and salmon habitat, are a much better bet. It’s time we give Kuiu a break!
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.
By the Juneau Empire
Logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is an industry that faltered many times before getting off the ground. Yet once it did, it took off with the momentum of a steam engine and with support from all over the state.
“Hereafter in Alaska the 14th day of July will be celebrated as the anniversary of one of the most important events in the territory’s history,” B. Frank Heintzleman, then-governor of the territory wrote of the dedication of the Ketchikan Pulp Company. “This is not only the first plan of its kind in Alaska, but also represents the largest single industrial investment ever made here. It is an important milestone on Alaska’s road to full industrial development.”
The year was 1954 and, at the time, the U.S. Forest Service openly accepted that best practices for silviculture was clear cutting. In 1972, the Forest Service even put out a brochure detailing how the practice of clearing entire stands of forest was the best way to ensure light reached the forest floor.
By the 1980s, a number of small mills had opened up across Southeast, and the new Native corporations had gotten into the business. It was a time of prosperity under a plan that was about to change drastically over the next few decades as federal agencies enacted tighter regulations and passed laws meant to protect national forest lands, but which ultimately drove the region’s timber industry to near-extinction.
History has shown there can be a viable timber industry in Southeast Alaska, but past practices did not take into consideration the sustainability that must exist in a region like few others in the world. It is a region we feel should be protected.
The Big Thorne Timber Sale will be the largest sale in some time and outlines the harvesting of some 5,000 acres of old growth forest. Whether or not that sale comes to fruition is up to the courts to decide.
There are better plans out there, ones that don’t subscribe to the historical practice of clear-cutting.
Now is the time to move forward because as history has taught, change doesn’t go over smoothly when so many players — conservation groups, regulatory agencies, business folks and industry experts — believe they know what sort of change is best.
We support future logging on the Tongass, but we want to see sustainable practices put into play. Timber harvests, unlike North Slope oil, don’t have to be a finite resource.
An example of one such plan was brought to our attention by Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist for the GEOS Institute, and Catharine Mater, vice president of Mater Engineering, both out of Oregon. Their team focused on a plan that uses young growth trees (those growing in once-harvested areas), while protecting sensitive areas such as karst, existing no-cut buffers and old-growth forest.
The numbers look promising.
“We focused on logs that can easily go to market,” DellaSala said. “… Areas that already had some thinning … where the trees grow bigger, quicker.”
With that narrowed focus, the team identified about 36,000 acres of timber ready for logging.
Over 50 years, that acreage would be able to provide more than the minimum amount of board feet per year to float the existing mills in the region, according to the study, including Viking Lumber (which was interviewed as part of the study) on Prince of Wales Island. If logged at a controlled pace — 35 million board feet per year of log supply, for instance — a mill located in the POW region would produce approximately 70 million board feet of lumber per year and create 150 full-time equivalent direct jobs.
There’s a catch: The Forest Service, under a plan of this nature, would have to change the age at which trees can be harvested. Tree growth rates decelerate around 90 years, and regulations say you can’t cut before that. The report from DellaSala and Mater assumes trees would be cut at 55 years old.
“If we do that, we’ll have a ‘wall of wood,’” DellaSala said.
The plan has its skeptics, but we like the environmental safeguards it supports. Furthermore, lawsuits over second-growth harvests are few and far between. If loggers don’t have to worry about lawsuits, they can harvest in peace.
Simply cutting trees does not equal a viable industry, and whether regulatory agencies move toward this plan or some other, we want to see the byproduct stay in the state.
In the end, we need a vibrant timber industry based on sustainability. It can be done. Care and cooperation must be at the forefront of these efforts, because the Tongass National Forest is one of the last remaining intact temperate rainforests on Earth. That must always be our highest consideration.
Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Director of Audience Abby Lowell,email@example.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, email@example.com.