The Forest of the Future
Sustainability and compromise in the Tongass National Forest
Amid the serenity of the towering spruces, hemlocks and cedars of Southeast, there’s a war going on. It’s a battle for the future of the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest and home to the most extensive stands of old-growth timber in the United States.
The polarity of the players in the dispute makes the fight a bitter one. Hardcore environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, would like to end logging in the forest, while equally hardcore, pro-logging entities, including the Alaska Forest Association and Sealaska, the regional Native corporation, insist that many more million board feet of timber can, and should, be cut in the Tongass.
The political skirmishing and oratorical muscle involved in the Tongass battle affect every American, who each year consumes a paper and lumber equivalent of a 100-foot tree. Alaska is a dominant player in that supply chain.
Balancing the needs and desires of all the groups involved in the dispute is proving difficult, and until the issue is resolved, the stability of Southeast Alaska’s economy is uncertain.
A Rich History
President Teddy Roosevelt spearheaded the creation of the Tongass National Forest in 1907 as a 16.8-million-acre treasure. For the first few years, the remoteness of the forest protected it, with only a few independent hand-loggers cherry-picking shoreline trees. Larger timber outfits stayed away until the late 1940s, when Congress authorized what it called a “timber-first” policy that granted logging a higher priority than other economic contributors such as fishing and mining. That’s when massive, old-growth trees began crashing to the ground. In 1950, the federal government awarded 50-year contracts for the harvest of trees in the Tongass in return for agreements to build giant pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka.
The Alaska Territory was looking for a year-round resource to stabilize its economy and bring families to the Last Frontier. That came with the original Tongass Act in 1947, legislation that opened 4.5 billion board feet of timber to logging, and construction of the first pulp mill in Ketchikan in 1954. Sustainability was not a word often used in relation to logging in the mid-20th century. Former logger Michael Kampnich, now a field representative for The Nature Conservancy, arrived in Alaska at 21, ready to cut trees.
“Whether through greed or ignorance or a combination of both, there was a general lack of knowledge, and in terms of sustainability, they weren’t thinking that far ahead,” he said. “We now recognize that what occurred previously was just too much, too fast.”
The Forest Service was logging at rates of up to 450 million board feet a year during the pulp-mill heyday. When the privately owned mills closed, Native corporations took over the effort and logged at the same rate or higher, Kampnich said.
“Hindsight indicates both logged at unsustainable rates,” he said. “If cutting had been done at say 50 to 75 million board feet a year, they could have done that on a sustainable rotation for a hundred years.”
Another long-time logger, now a hunting guide, Johnnie Laird, came to Alaska in 1972.
“It was like stepping back in history, with logging camps and pulp mills going strong,” he said. “We were generally ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Nobody cared, and we logged trees from one end of Prince of Wales Island to the other, cutting thousands of acres so clean it looked like somebody had taken a lawn mower to the hillside. This was a logging community and a logging economy. Logging was a money-making enterprise with little regard for future impact.”
Change of Direction
Sustainability is much more important today, as the U.S. Forest Service focuses on restoring damage inflicted by decades of logging under lax rules with limited thought about future supply. In May 2010, the federal government announced that it would shift from old-growth logging in remote areas and concentrate on preparing previously logged areas for future harvest—second-growth logging.
“It’s a bold new vision that’s not popular with some powerful Alaskans who still dream of resurrecting an outdated timber industry,” said Matt Zencey of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
But timber management practices have changed dramatically, as more is understood about the ecosystems, said U.S. Forest Service engineering geologist Bob Gubernick.
“What happened in the late ’50s and early ’60s was a commercial wood harvest that essentially cherry-picked preferred timber, 4- and 5-feet in diameter,” he said. “Streams were breached and roads built for product haul out, completely altering the natural terrain. So here we are, some 50 years later, coming back to make things better in the bottomland where the easy wood was the first to go.”
Transfer of the mission from old-growth logging harvest to watershed restoration will bring jobs to some of the folks displaced by that change.
“Our effort now is to restore whole watersheds, and Prince of Wales Island alone has over 1,600 miles of stream habitat heavily affected by past timber extraction. Now’s our chance to mop up and fix what was damaged or destroyed earlier,” Gubernick said.
Some projects have been completed, including a $500,000 fish pass in Thorne Bay that allows access to six more miles of stream, giving silver and red salmon better breeding grounds and helping to strengthen another important part of the Southeast Alaska economy. According to a study by Trout Unlimited, salmon and trout generate about one in 10 jobs in the region and bring $1 billion into the economy through hatcheries and commercial, sport, personal and subsistence fisheries.
Benefits of some restoration efforts are subjective, hard to immediately quantify from an economic standpoint.
“Numerical success is sometimes a guesstimate,” said Kampnich of The Nature Conservancy. “Returns are, to some degree, hard to put specific numbers on when it involves improvement of habitat. Intuitively, however, when you help by improving habitat that was screwed up in the past, you know darn well if you fix it, things will get better.”
Silviculture, the development and care of forests through restoration, pre-commercial thinning and cultivation of second growth, is one of the promising waves of the future. Sealaska, the largest private harvester of timber in Southeast (and seventh-largest shipper of timber products in North America), says it is atop that effort, investing millions on its lands and creating jobs in rural communities in the process. In 2010, Sealaska Timber Corp.’s second-growth harvest and marketing program loaded six classes of timber onto charter vessels for Asian markets.
“Our firm has already invested over $18 million in silviculture projects,” said Rick Harris, former environmental manager for Sealaska and now its executive vice president, in support of the company’s mantra that careful and responsible stewardship of natural resources is the heart of long-term sustainability. Similar statements are made at all levels of the corporation, according to Rosita Worl, the corporation’s lands committee chairwoman.
“Investment in the health of young forests is an obligation of land managers to future generations,” she said.
But rebuilding the resource does not preclude profiting from it, Sealaska’s representatives say. Although timber output in recent years has fallen from highs in excess of 470 million board feet annually, Sealaska lists primary assets including land containing 3.5 billion board feet of merchantable timber. And the Alaska Forest Association and Sealaska want to expand holdings and cut more board feet, claiming the revised 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan allows 676,000 acres of commercial forest to be harvested in a 100-year rotation. It sounds like a lot, but the Forest Association says it means less than 10 percent of the forested Tongass will be cut in the next century—4 percent of the entire acreage available for timber management.
Change Comes Slowly
While the concept of second-growth holds promise, a shift to that practice is not going to happen overnight.
“This young-growth timber, to be commercially viable on a widespread basis, we’re probably looking at another 20 years,” Kampnich said. “Native corporations are going to be significant players in the timber industry, and that will be beneficial, especially to heavily damaged Prince of Wales Island. But they’ll need to do it better the second time around.”
Not everyone is happy with the plan the federal government has drafted.
“Review of the 2010 Five-Year Schedule, the so-called ‘vegetative management schedule,’ indicates a plan to reduce our timber supply again, cutting scheduled volume about in half,” said Owen Graham, Alaska Forest Association director.
Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has stepped in, sponsoring the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, which, proponents say, would allow contemporary logging of some prime habitat while that shift to more sustainable logging takes place.
“Forest Service officials say it will be 30 to 40 years before they can begin to transition into shipping sufficient volume of second-growth timber from their lands, a length of time that would result in closure of the remaining sawmills in Southeast,” said Robert Dillon of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, speaking on Murkowski’s behalf. “The Southeast economy has been in trouble for years, and we want to find a way to support the few remaining timber jobs without disenfranchising any of the other users in the process. Everyone will have to compromise a little bit to make that happen. We’re trying to strike a compromise solution here that will provide a bridge to push the economy forward.”
“This legislation is, at its heart, a jobs and conservation measure which includes significant old-growth and wild land benefits, and a source of long-term, sustainable jobs for the state of Alaska,” said Sealaska president and CEO Chris McNeil Jr., a member of the Tlingit tribe.
The Native corporation’s commitment to the environment has been questioned in the past. Even Sealaska’s company history notes its focus was once money, not conservation.
“In the late 1980s, environmentalists began speaking out against Native corporations’ logging practices (and) the excessive logging (that) began in 1980 when Native corporations received privately-owned land promised in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” according to reports in Sealaska archives. “Corporations such as Sealaska lauded the boost in the economy resulting from logging, feeling that its responsibility to shareholders to maximize profits trumped other concerns.”
But Sealaska is quick to insist it holds the long-term future of the Tongass near to its heart today, just as the conservation groups opposing logging do.
“We’re just asking for the 85,000 acres still owed us from the 1971 Act and not one acre more,” said Sealaska’s Harris. “We’re only asking for what is ours. The idea that we are bad stewards is wrong. What we’re trying to do is slowly craft our entitlement in a way that works.”
Scott Hed, executive director of Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska, says Alaska is lucky that, to a large degree, the Tongass is a healthy, functioning ecosystem despite some thoughtless logging in the past. Hed doesn’t see the call for logging on state or private land dying down any time soon, but he believes the desires of logging proponents can be balanced with the health of the forest.
“What is needed is a balanced, multi-use approach to managing the forest because, while there is room for a timber industry, it’ll never be the ruler of the region it was in the past,” he said. “What ought to be pursued is a sustainable timber industry operating with standards to protect habitat and make a transition from old-growth harvest to second-growth cutting and work to restore past callousness.”
There is some indication that the two sides, conservationists and logging supporters, are willing to listen to each other today in hope of finding an acceptable solution. The nearly three-dozen delegates who make up the Tongass Futures Roundtable, is one such effort. The group is working on what members call a collaborative consensus-based compromise.
“In Alaska, this type of compromise is a long road where everyone needs to give some to get some in order to arrive at a solution that’s workable for most everyone,” said the roundtable’s Restoration Committee chair Karen Hardigg, whose was, until earlier this year, deputy regional director for The Wilderness Society.
Fellow roundtable member Sealaska’s Harris said progress is slow but some progress is happening.
“We’ve taken people who wouldn’t even talk to each other before who now will discuss issues in open dialogue,” he said.
But even that cooperation is tenuous. In May , six members of the Roundtable, representing communities within the Tongass, resigned from the group, saying the process is just too slow.
Logging Has its Place
Representatives of the timber industry remain stalwart in their assertion that they have the right to cut, this time around with a view toward social responsibility and the concept of forest sustainability. The U.S. Forest Service is setting a new direction, leaning toward restoration of past devastation and preserving old growth. And even some of those who don’t make money every time someone hollers “timber” are admitting there is an economic need and a rightful place for logging that is controlled and sustainable.
At the other end of the spectrum lies a growing visitor industry—millions of dollars brought to Alaska by tourists who want to see the pristine wilderness of the Last Frontier.
“Aside from the truly radical groups, there’s not much call to end all logging on the Tongass or in Southeast Alaska on private lands,” said Hed, of the Sportsman’s Alliance. “But while there’s room for a timber industry, what is needed is a balanced, multi-use approach to managing the forest.”
It’s not clear how—or how soon—agreement on the issues will be reached, but there is an air of optimism amid the players these days.
“It’s a long road when it comes to collaborative consensus compromise, but we’re getting much better at working together on forest management activities,” said Hardigg of the Tongass Futures Roundtable. “There’s been a significant shift toward shared priorities, and while we have a long ways to go to get truly sustainable forest management that improves or maintains ecological health while benefiting local communities and economies, the tone and nature of our conversations has changed for the better.”
—Outdoor writer Lee Allen, originally from Vermont, now lives in Tucson, Ariz.
The Forest of the Future