Big Thorne: Big Step Backwards for Tongass

This week’s news that the U.S. Forest Service has issued a contract for a large old-growth timber sale on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is disappointing to a wide range of Americans, including sport and commercial fishermen, hunters, tourism operators and visitors to this remote, salmon-rich region. It’s a giant step backwards from the direction the federal agency should be heading in managing the nation’s largest and wildest national forest.

Rather than fulfilling its pledge to transition away from ecologically harmful and money-losing old-growth logging in America’s rare temperate rain forest, the Forest Service appears mired in old ways of doing business. It’s still trying to prop up a dying but politically influential industry while ignoring the needs of the southeast Alaska’s growth sectors: seafood, maritime and visitor services. Salmon and tourism alone inject about $2 billion a year into the regional economy and employ thousands of people. Timber? It supports about 100 private sector jobs while requiring more than $20 million in subsidy each year.

Take a look at what’s happening here with the Big Thorne timber sale:

Once upon a time there was a sizeable but heavily subsidized timber industry in Southeast Alaska, consisting of two big pulp mills and some medium-sized sawmills. The large mills closed in the 1990s due to a variety of factors but not before consuming much of the largest and most biologically productive forest of the Tongass. Now there’s just one medium-sized mill left, Viking Lumber Co., as well as a handful of mom-and-pop operations. Public attitudes toward harvesting 500-year-old trees have changed drastically since the big mills came to life in the 1950s. Most Americans no longer care for industrial razing of ancient forests that support healthy populations of wild salmon, steelhead, trout, bears, wolves, deer, eagles and the like. Fishing, tourism, small-scale logging and forest restoration are more palatable and make a lot more fiscal sense in place like Southeast Alaska.

But the Forest Service, housed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, continues to view the Tongass as a tree farm, with old-growth forest a crop to be harvested like soy beans or corn. The Forest Service gives lip service to the need to transition away from old-growth logging, but fails to follow through. It continues to devote most of its budget and staff in Southeast Alaska to old-growth logging, ignoring the fact that salmon and tourism, not chain saws, drive southeast Alaska’s economy.

This week’s Big Thorne announcement is the latest reminder that the Forest Service’s transition is way off track.

So what does this latest timber sale entail? Under the Forest Service contract, Viking Lumber is paying pennies on the dollar to clear cut and selectively harvest  nearly 6,200 acres  of old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar trees, some of which were standing when the U.S. Constitution was signed.  It’s the biggest old-growth logging bonanza the Forest Service has offered since the mills closed two decades ago.  And, since it’s costing the Forest Service far more to prepare and administer the sale than it is receiving from Viking Lumber in timber sale receipts, taxpayers are literally paying to have some of the best remaining productive fish and wildlife habitat on Prince of Wales Island clear cut.

Conservation groups challenging the sale in court are emphasizing the harm it will do to the island’s fragile Sitka-blacked deer populations and the Alexander Archipelago wolves that consume them. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the wolf under the Endangered Species Act.)  

Sportsmen, anglers and others in the outdoor community are concerned about deer and wolves.  But they also note that Prince of Wales Island offers world-class fishing opportunities that could be harmed by the Big Thorne sale. Fishermen target all five species of Pacific salmon, halibut and black cod, as well as shell fish, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins that abound in waters around Prince of Wales Island. The island’s tourism industry is thriving as it is in the rest of Southeast Alaska. . Salmon produced on Prince of Wales Island—along with steelhead, Dolly Varden and coastal cutthroat trout—support a booming sport fishing industry that keeps charter boats and local guides booked years in advance.  The region’s natural beauty draws more than two million visitors every summer on cruise ships, airlines and state ferries. Rather than tarnishing another huge swath of southeast Alaska with taxpayer subsidized clear-cuts, shouldn’t the Forest Service listen to the public, stop the nonsense, and get on with moving to a post-old-growth logging future?

The Forest Service needs a new business model for the Tongass. The agency needs to start investing in growth industries like fishing and tourism by supporting stream restoration and visitor services.  By a wide margin, the Tongass produces more salmon and has more salmon streams than any other national forest in the country.  It is our largest national forest, with towering ancient trees, rugged mountains, and an expansive archipelago of thousands of islands. Instead of sacrificing this one-of-a-kind landscape and undercutting the region’s economic base, the Forest Service needs to make its transition a reality.  It needs to move beyond short-sighted projects like the Big Thorne timber sale and start allocating its resources toward sustainable industries that create a diverse economic base for the region and protect important fish, wildlife and water resources. 


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