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Move Toward Ceasing Large-Scale Old-Growth Logging in the Tongass; But is the real economic driver forgotten?

July 05, 2013
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday outlined a series of actions by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conserve the old-growth forests of the Tongass National Forest. The actions will focus on speeding the transition to management of second-growth (previously harvested) forests.

At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States. It contains large stands of old-growth rainforest, and provides world-class recreation and fishing while supporting local communities through a variety of economic activities.

"The Tongass National Forest is a national treasure. Today [Wednesday] , I am outlining a series of actions by USDA and the Forest Service that will protect the old-growth forests of the Tongass while preserving forest jobs in southeast Alaska," said Secretary Vilsack. "I am asking the Forest Service to immediately begin planning for the transition to harvesting second growth timber while reducing old-growth harvesting over time."

According to Vilsack, the actions announced Wednesday will conserve the outstanding coastal rainforests of the Tongass. They will ensure a smooth transition to second-growth forests so the forest industry can continue to provide jobs and opportunity in Southeast Alaska.

"The actions we are taking [Wednesday] create an opportunity to demonstrate that conservation of old-growth forests can be economically beneficial for communities," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. "The transition will maintain an integrated wood products industry and help sustain communities in southeast Alaska. Finally, we can move beyond the controversial debate on old-growth forests and focus our resources on supporting jobs."

Vilsack said a persistent challenge on the Tongass National Forest has been low availability of second growth timber for use by the forest industry, making a transition away from old growth timber difficult. Flexibility, like that provided in the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, recently passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is critical to making second growth forest available for timber harvest.

As part of the actions announced Wednesday, Secretary Vilsack noted USDA's commitment to achieving this flexibility. Additional actions announced Wednesday by the Secretary include:

  • Allocating Forest Service staff and financial resources to development of second growth sales.
  • Developing a new work plan for the Tongass that includes a growing mix of second growth projects.
  • Asking the Forest Service to consider an amendment to the Tongass National Forest land management plan that would speed the transition.
  • Supporting research into second growth management and market development.
  • Working with USDA's Rural Development mission to facilitate retooling of the forest industry so that second growth timber can be harvested and processed economically.
  • Approval for establishment of a Federal Advisory Committee to provide stakeholder input on the transition to second growth.

The Secretary's memorandum comes after the Tongass National Forest announced Monday a large timber sale – the Big Thorne sale – that includes significant old growth timber. This sale is important to provide an existing supply of timber for forest industry in the region, thereby affording adequate time for the Forest Service to develop second growth sales. The intent of the actions announced today is that second growth timber sales will continue to increase, and within 10 to 15 years that the vast majority of timber sales on the forest will be from second growth forests.

In response to the announcement Wednesday by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 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.

Bristol said, “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 [Wednesday] 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 press release issued Wednesday, 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 on Wednesday, 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.   

Commenting on the Secretary's announcement, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in a prepared statement, “Earlier this week, I welcomed the announcement that the Big Thorne timber sale is moving forward. I indicated then that I would prefer that the sale was somewhat larger and of a longer duration, with a greater assurance of a long-term supply of timber, but that I appreciate that the sale is on the market." 

“As for the Secretary’s announcement on transition to harvesting young growth, I am still very skeptical that such a transition can be successful. But ultimately, my goal is, and has always been, to get more marketable timber – of whatever type – into the timber base to develop a revitalized, sustainable Tongass timber industry," said Murkowski - Alaska’s senior senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Murkowski added, “It will be vital to see the details and the timing of future old growth sales and exactly what the Tongass Land Management Plan revision will call for before knowing whether to accept or reject the Forest Service strategy. But given the years of a starvation diet of timber supplies, it’s clear that the Forest Service has a big job ahead of it to reassure all sides that it can implement a successful transition to a young-growth industry in Southeast. The vigorous defense and completion of the Big Thorne sale will be a much-needed sign of good faith for the people of Southeast Alaska.”  

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) also commented on Vilsack’s memorandum specifying direction for the transition in the Tongass National Forest to timber harvest consisting solely of young growth trees.

Begich said, “I’m pleased that Secretary Vilsack recognizes the need to stabilize the timber industry by adopting a collaborative approach in which the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will coordinate with the State of Alaska, regional and village Native corporations, and others on a transition strategy,” said Sen. Begich.  “However, just a few days ago I voiced support for the Big Thorne timber sale decision as it seemed to indicate that the USFS was trying to provide a multi-year supply of timber to mills in Southeast Alaska.  While the memorandum issued today references the need for ‘bridge timber’ to keep the industry alive, it does not reference any specific sales other than the Big Thorne sale to accomplish that goal.”

Begich said, “The memorandum also states that in the next 10-15 years, the ‘vast majority’ of timber sold in the Tongass will be young growth.  Based upon meetings I have had with Southeast Alaska timber companies, I question whether that goal is realistic. I am therefore asking Secretary Vilsack to take some additional actions which I believe are minimally necessary in order to have a successful transition.”

Additional actions requested by Begich of Secretary Vilsack include:

  • Assure that a sufficient supply of bridge timber will be provided to the timber industry during the entire transition period—regardless of its length.  History in other states has taught that once the timber industry is lost and mills close, they will not return.  Southeast Alaska cannot afford any more mill closures because the period needed for a full transition was underestimated.
  • Immediately order an update of the 1996 inventoried roadless maps to reflect reality on the ground.  Sen. Begich initially made this request in 2011.  Multiple changes occurred in the Tongass during the period of exemption from the roadless rule. Updating obsolete maps would easily increase the size of the timber base with no additional road building, and would make potential multi-year sales, such as Wrangell Island, more economic.
  • Assure Southeast Alaska that USDA understands that any successful solution in the Tongass National Forest should be created by its people and communities.  The Secretary should assure both that they will have a meaningful role as the implementation of the transition occurs, and that management of the Tongass National Forest is returned to the USFS Tongass National Forest.


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


On the Web:

Secretary Vilsack's memorandum is available online:


Sources of News: 

USDA - Forest Service

Trout Unlimited

Office of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Office of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich


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