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The State of the Tongass
By Forrest Cole


May 20, 2005

The Tongass National Forest has received plenty of media attention lately about issues such as the economics of timber harvesting and road building. Some pretty staggering numbers were attributed to both programs on the Tongass.

Although I'll address those issues frankly, simply and honestly, I also want to let you know some of the other things we are accomplishing as stewards of your national forest. The Tongass is one of the "crown jewels" of public lands ­ and we intend to keep it that way.

Our fiscal 2004 expenditure to produce forest products was actually about $25 million of the $48 million cost discussed in some stories. The rest of those funds were spent on overall administrative costs, road and bridge construction unrelated to timber harvesting, and other engineering projects. For those who want a detailed breakdown of all the numbers, we are in the process of printing a fiscal 2004 "The State of the Forest" brochure. You'll be able to pick one up at any Forest Service office in Southeast Alaska, and it will also be available online.

Last year, the small, family-owned wood products businesses in Southeast Alaska were only able to harvest about 46 million board feet of timber, largely because most of the wood we have wanted to offer for sale the past few years has been tied up in lawsuits. What they cut in 2004 was only about a third of the demand, and not really even enough to keep them fully operating. These businesses are in a state of transition, moving toward producing more finished products from Alaskan wood, and selling them in Alaska and the rest of the United States. We support this move, but it will take some time to get there.

There are also are reports of the "massive roadbuilding" that is supposedly occurring on the Tongass. In reality, less than seven miles of new road were constructed last year for timber harvest activities on the entire 17-million-acre forest. Most of the other road activities were for maintenance of existing roads.

Are roads we build important? Well, just ask the 32 communities within the boundaries of the Tongass who depend on access to the natural resources of the forest for their economic and social health. Most Southeast Alaska communities also lack road and utility connections to other communities, or even too much of the lands surrounding them.

The Tongass contains about 3,600 miles of Forest System Roads. It's about the size of West Virginia and Delaware combined ­ two states not often thought of as highly urbanized. Together, however, they contain nearly 50,000 miles of road, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. The Tongass is still one of the least roaded forests in the National Forest System.

Here's another fact that seems to get lost when roads, timber harvest, and the Tongass are discussed: of the more than nine million Tongass acres affected by the roadless rule, timber harvest will be considered on less than 330,000 acres. In other words, well over 80 percent of the Tongass is currently roadless and undeveloped, and will stay that way. About four percent is open for consideration of wood production over the next century.

So we agree with people who want roadless areas protected. That's why our forest plan allows us to harvest timber on only 2 percent of the forest that is unroaded today.

With all the misinformation swirling around about roads and timber, sometimes our other accomplishments and results get lost in the dust. Here are just a few of the things the more than 500 Tongass public servants accomplished in fiscal year 2004:

We worked hard to support subsistence harvests of fish and wildlife ­ keeping the "grocery store" open for thousands of rural Alaskans. We continued our efforts to correct old fish passage problems by investing in stream crossing improvements and design. We developed an invasive species strategy to help prevent non-native plants ­ weeds, in other words ­ from becoming the same kind of problem they are on Lower 48 national forests.

The Stikine River welcomed a federal subsistence fishery for the first time in 50 years. Widespread watershed restoration work continued on the Tongass with riparian thinning, wildlife-emphasis thinning, and in-stream large woody debris insertions. The Redoubt Lake Restoration and Management Program near Sitka garnered national recognition for collaborative fisheries management.

Here's the bottom line: we spent over $28 million on recreation, visitor services, heritage, wilderness, minerals, vegetation, watershed, subsistence, wildlife and fish habitat, fire suppression, and land acquisition. And that figure doesn't include administrative costs either.

The Tongass Forest Plan is our contract with the public. It tells you how we will care for this crown jewel of a forest, and how we will follow the laws and spend the money we're given. You can rest assured that we will continue to implement this "contract" as efficiently and effectively as possible while protecting the health of the forest. Good and reasonable stewardship will ensure the Tongass will continue to thrive while meeting the needs of people.

Forrest Cole
Tongass National Forest Supervisor


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