The Tongass National Forest is in the news again. The federal agency that manages the 17-million-acre rainforest in Southeast Alaska says that it will revise the Tongass land management plan, the document that governs activities including logging, road-building, mining, habitat restoration, and recreation.
It’s unclear to what extent the plan will be overhauled. After issuing a press release on Tuesday, no Forest Service officials were available to answer questions because of the federal government shutdown. In the release, Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said his agency will launch a public process to identify “the timber base suitable to support a transition to young-growth management, in a way that supports the continued viability of the forest industry in Southeast Alaska, per the direction of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.”
While the Forest Service statement is too vague to draw many conclusions, it sure sounds like the Forest Service is looking for ways to continue its money-losing old-growth logging program while trying to figure out a way to nudge the existing timber industry into using young growth – smaller trees that have grown back after clear-cut logging.
TU’s Alaska Forest Program Manager Austin Williams said it’s unfortunate that the Forest Service remains so focused on old-growth logging instead of making good on its May 2010 pledge to rapidly get out of that line of work.
“The Tongass produces more wild salmon than anywhere else in the country, and these salmon depend on in-tact watersheds that haven’t been degraded by logging and road-building. The Tongass has a backlog of $100 million in watershed restoration needs, but the Forest Service is too hung-up on logging to make a meaningful dent in the unmet restoration needs,” said Williams.
He said the agency is dragging its feet on transitioning out of old-growth logging and forcing taxpayers to foot a bill for more than $20 million per year in timber losses.
“It’s a huge waste of money for what amounts to a little more than 100 logging and milling jobs. Instead, the Forest Service should be investing in salmon and recreation, which supports more than 7,200 jobs and contributes $1 billion annually to the regional economy. The Forest Service really needs to catch up with the times.” Williams said.
Williams noted a recent study by the Southeast Conference that indicated Southeast Alaska’s economy is doing well and that the population is at a record high. The Southeast Alaska labor force increased by 1,800 jobs and earnings jumped by 10 percent over the past two years, according to the report. It noted that the top sources of private employment are fishing, tourism, construction and health care. The seafood industry – which depends on healthy forest watersheds – is Southeast Alaska’s largest source of private-sector employment earnings, accounting for 12 percent of all regional wages, and 9 percent of all employment.
“It’s ironic that the Forest Service press release doesn’t even mention the fishing and tourism industries, which are the real drivers of the regional economy. It just goes to show how out of touch with reality this agency is,” said Williams.
The Forest Service will set up a Federal Advisory Committee to work on figuring out how to modify the Tongass land management plan. The committee is expected to have its first meeting in early 2014. Trout Unlimited will seek a seat at the table.