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Congress Considers S.340.  An Alaska Big-Tree Old Growth Transfer to Private Corporation

By Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson

May 08, 2013

Legislation sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would transfer approximately 70,000 acres of public land in scattered locations across Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to the Sealaska Corporation, primarily for extensive industrial scale clearcut logging other commercial development.

The bottom line on S.340 is: 
A) It is completely unnecessary; and
B) It is a very poor environmental trade off of lands and resources, and not in the public interest. 
C) It sets a precedent, and an inequity, in the transfer of lands outside the public review process, potentially opening new claims by Native corporations across the state.

The proposed legislation (S. 340) would enable the Sealaska Corporation, to reopen and rewrite basic terms of Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) in order to make alternative land selections in the Tongass, including some of the region’s most valuable large-tree old growth. Under current law, the Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections but is now seeking legislation to renege on their original ‘requested’ deal to obtain more commercially valuable Tongass public lands.

Sealaska’s controversial proposal has attracted opposition from small towns scattered throughout the southeast Alaska panhandle region as well as a diverse assortment of sportsmen and conservation groups concerned about habitat impacts. Several of the publicly owned areas now being sought for logging by the Sealaska Corporation have exceptional ecological value identified as conservation priorities through a comprehensive Tongass-wide habitat assessment process by The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Alaska.

A letter jointly submitted about the bill from The Wildlife Society, The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wildlife Forever,  Safari Club International and more than a dozen other sports groups describes the legislation as “fundamentally flawed” and asks that the bill not advance further.  Trout Unlimited also opposes the legislation for not adequately protecting high-value salmon producing watersheds that would be transferred out of the national forest to be logged by Sealaska.

The Tongass National Forest contains a significant portion of the earth’s last remaining significantly-sized tracts of this forest type. Large-tree old growth stands have always been scarce as well as long-targeted by loggers since the first days of commercial logging.  Today, they constitute a very small fraction of the overall landscape. Size class 6 and 7 combined represent 3.4% of the land area. Size class 7 alone, which include stands with up to 200,000 board feet per acre (think of trees 10-12+ feet in girth and worth a quarter million dollars per acre) today occur on just half a percent of the land base.

Past Tongass operations have been exceedingly hard on these unique and rare large-tree stands. These very special stands are far more than just visually impressive, evolved over a millennium, they constitute the richest and most valuable wildlife habitat on the Tongass.

The public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska under S. 340 include some of the region’s most biologically productive areas. The bill would enable the corporation to “high-grade” — i.e., disproportionately target and clearcut extremely rare, big-tree old growth. Recent analysis of S. 340 shows that Sealaska is selecting large-tree old growth stands (combined volume class 6/7) at 10 times the rate they occur naturally in the Tongass (30% vs 3.4%).[1]  Even the young-growth (previously logged) forest that Sealaska is also selecting targets the most productive lands.

The Sealaska legislation would high-grade increasingly rare, large-tree old growth and amplify this long-recognized problem. Congress explicitly identified the high-grading concern in 1990 as part of the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) and enacted an explicit ban on the practice.[2]  An independent scientific peer review of Tongass forest management practices in 1997 further highlighted the interconnected problems of high-grading, forest fragmentation, and loss of habitat connectivity.[3]  In its most recent testimony to Congress on S. 340 the Department of the Interior testified that if the Sealaska legislation is enacted as proposed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service may have to review its previous findings not to list the Queen Charlotte goshawk and the Alexander Archipelago wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

Because Sealaska has already made its final Settlement Act land selections under existing law and has officially filed those selections with the federal Bureau of Land Management, no further action is required by Congress for the corporation to receive its full entitlement.

S. 340 is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).  We would encourage you to contact the Committee and ask for no further action on this bill.

Don Cornelius and Jack Gustafson
Juneau, Alaska

About:  "Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Gustofson are former Area Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division; with a combined experience of over 32 years reviewing Tongass National Forest, and private Native corporation logging issues."

Received May 08, 2013 - Published May 08, 2013


Photo: Increasingly rare Tongass volume class 7 old growth. 
Note - Cedar species can be 1,000+ years old.  (Click Here)  

300 Scientists letter critical of Sealaska’s highgrading large tree forest (Click Here, pdf)

[1] Kirchoff, S. 340 Tongass National Forest Comparison, February 2013 (Click Here )
[2] H.R. 987: Tongass Timber Reform Act, Section 301(c)(2)
[3] Powell, et al., “Joint Statement of Members of the Peer Review Committee Concerning the Inadequacy of Conservation Measures for Vertebrate Species in the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan of Record,” (September 1997).




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