In response to a July 3 announcement by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the Tongass National Forest, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Director, Tim Bristol, said the department, which oversees the Forest Service, missed an opportunity to focus the Forest Service on the real economic driver in the 17-million-acre Tongass–salmon and healthy forest ecosystems, and the economies they sustain.
“We appreciate the hard work that the Administration has put toward ending large-scale, old-growth logging on the Tongass, but this is a missed opportunity to recognize the Tongass for its true value. Salmon fishing supports some 7,200 jobs on the Tongass and is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Tourism accounts for another roughly 10,000 jobs. Today the secretary said he’s going to allow another 10 to 15 years of old-growth logging on the Tongass. That threatens the healthy, unlogged watersheds and beautiful vistas that support Southeast Alaska.
In a July 3 press release, Vilsack referred to a 2010 pledge by his department to transition out of large-scale, old-growth logging in favor of second-growth management on the Tongass. Known as the Tongass transition framework, the three-year-old plan called for a rapid end to large-scale, old-growth timber harvest while directing the Forest Service to support bright spots in the regional economy such as fishing, tourism, visitor services, mariculture and alternative energy. But Vilsack said it would take his agency more than a decade to move beyond old-growth logging. He noted that earlier this week the Forest Service released a nearly 150 million board foot timber sale called Big Thorne, the largest old-growth timber sale on the Tongass in recent years.
“The Forest Service is trapped in an outdated model. Timber isn’t the economic driver it once was in the region. The fact is the Tongass is a salmon factory. It produces 70 percent of all salmon from national forests. Managing the Tongass for salmon should be the Forest Service’s primary function, not propping up old-growth logging for another 10 to 15 years. The fact that the secretary’s plan for the Tongass isn’t focused on salmon is deeply disappointing,” said Bristol.
Commercial troller and long-liner Jesse Remund was also disappointed with Vilsack’s announcement. A second-generation commercial fisherman from Port Alexander, an island fishing village in the Tongass National Forest, Remund said it’s hard to comprehend why the Forest Service is still offering old-growth to loggers when the economy of Southeast Alaska is rooted in fishing and tourism these days.
“The Forest Service has missed the mark. The Big Thorne timber sale and others like it are a huge waste. The Tongass’ rare, old-growth stands and the many salmon and trout-producing watersheds all over Southeast Alaska provide fish runs that are the envy of the world, especially in places where wild salmon have all but disappeared. The places the Forest Service plan to log sustain wild game like Sitka black-tailed deer that are a key subsistence food for families like mine. These old-growth stands are worth so much more when they aren’t clear-cut logged,” said Remund.
While Vilsack said it would take more than a decade for the Tongass to end clear-cutting old-growth, the secretary noted that he would be adding staff and resources to speed the transition to second-growth harvest, directing the development of new second-growth and restoration projects, and taking other steps including a possible amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan to hasten the process.
“It’s good that they’re acknowledging that the pace of the transition is too slow. We encourage them to amend the Tongass forest plan and make the transition a reality. It’s past time for this agency to move staff resources and funding to start focusing on salmon as the top priority. That would be a good use of taxpayer dollars,” said Brad Elfers, owner of Alaska Fly Fishing Goods, a Juneau-based fly fishing business.