management issues facing the Tongass
September 24, 2004
The Southeast Conference organization includes members of government, nonprofit groups and businesses from the Alaska panhandle. The annual get-together gives members a chance to receive updates and exchange ideas about important issues facing Southeast Alaska.
Cole discussed the Tongass Land Management Plan, which was updated in 1997, and was designed to assure sustainability for all resources and values, while allowing development on a relatively small portion of the Tongass to support resource-dependent communities in Southeast Alaska.
The Tongass encompasses nearly 17 million acres in Southeast Alaska and has about 9.4 million acres of old growth forest, of which about 5 million acres contain productive or commercial-sized old growth. Nearly 90 percent of the 5 million acres of productive old growth forest is protected under the Forest Plan.
Cole said harvest levels on the Tongass have been reduced substantially in response to environmental needs and laws, cancellation of the long-term contracts and public expectations.
"The Tongass is having difficulty keeping local timber businesses supplied with enough timber to keep operating," said Cole.
Cole said the Forest Service has taken steps to help local companies, including rejuvenating previously offered but unsold sales, and canceling uneconomical timbers sales.
The timber industry in Southeast Alaska is changing dramatically. Large, industrial pulp operations are gone, leaving family-owned, community-based small companies who are building an integrated industry seeking to provide finished products, such as dimension lumber and window and door trim, to local, national and international markets.
According to Cole, these businesses are dependent on Tongass National Forest timber for their survival, and the Tongass timber program is striving to help the industry reach a point where investments are completed in drying and planing lumber, having it graded and selling it locally.
Cole explained to conference attendees that various modifications are being made to the Tongass timber program to address the low-volume challenges.
"We are examining our timber sale appraisal methods," said Cole. "We are also trying to minimize road costs and looking at harvest costs."
Cole gave a brief explanation why the timber program was in its current situation.
Between the early 1950s and mid-1990s, timber harvest averaged about 358 million board feet a year after the establishment of the long-term contracts and pulp mills. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, the Tongass harvested 48, 34 and 51 million board feet respectively.
According to Cole, these are the lowest harvests on the Tongass since before 1950, and are associated with a combination of uncertainties, including delays related to appeals and litigation, the depressed economy, lower domestic processed timber values for timber from the Tongass, and other industry-related transition factors.
There are 676,000 acres available for programmed timber harvest on the Tongass, which includes about 196,000 acres of second growth and about 480,000 acres of old growth. The 676,000 acres provide a land base which can yield a maximum of 267 million board feet per year on a sustainable basis under the Tongass Forest Plan.
The forest supervisor offered members of Southeast Conference a glimpse in to the future by addressing where the Tongass was headed.
"We need to stabilize the existing businesses that rely on the Tongass for survival," Cole said.
To help with this stabilization, the current Tongass timber program seeks to plan, prepare, and sell about 150 million board feet per year to comply with Tongass Timber Reform Act's seek-to-meet timber market demand provisions.
The Tongass timber sale planning and preparation program is multi-year in nature because it takes between three and five years, or more, for analysis of a project area to be completed and the timber to be made available for sale. Therefore, several projects in various stages of planning, preparation, and implementation are being worked on in any given year.
"Over time, we need to re-establish three years of economic timber sales under contract," said Cole. "We need to establish 450 million board feet of fully-prepared and ready-to-offer volume and maintain 400 to 500 million board feet of timber in the planning stages."
Alaska imports about 100 million
board feet of timber products, especially finished and graded
construction lumber, annually from the lower 48 states, Canada
and other countries. Alaskan timber can supply much of Alaskan's
needs for wood products and have a positive economic impact on
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