My Turn: Tongass transition plan lacks initiative

  • By DOMINICK A. DELLASALA and JIM FURNISH
  • Wednesday, January 20, 2016 5:09pm
  • Opinion

Change is not for the risk averse. It is scary stuff that takes us out of our comfort zones and into the unknown.

It’s also how we adapt, meet challenges and improve outcomes for our communities and ourselves. People in Southeast Alaska know that better than most. Over the past quarter century, the region has been moving beyond boom-and-bust cycles of unsustainable resource extraction and export. Today, world-class, sustainably managed fisheries, tourism and recreation lead economic diversification that has replaced most old-growth logging.

The time is past due for the Forest Service to ride the change wave. In 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recognized that when he announced a transition away from logging old growth and roadless areas on the Tongass would help “communities stabilize and grow new jobs.” His Alaska Regional Forester agreed, saying that the Forest Service would transition “quickly.”

Logging in old growth and roadless areas damages every value and use of the Tongass except timber production. It jeopardizes other economic sectors at the same time that it degrades the natural beauty, fish and wildlife habitat, and the back country that define the region for residents and visitors. And, not surprisingly, it is a source of ongoing conflict.

After that great start, though, the Forest Service quickly fell victim to bureaucratic inertia. It took over five years for the agency to announce a draft transition plan. And the plan turns out to be sixteen more years of old growth logging—with all of the uncertainty and contention that would entail.

We think there is a better way.

For the past two years, we have been conducting research to determine just how much young forest is available to support a rapid transition. Our field teams recently completed the most intensive inventory of young growth on the Tongass. What we found surprised many.

Within about five years, young forests originally logged in the 1950s and since thinned to improve log quality, will have grown enough to sustain and even increase recent Tongass timber production in perpetuity while creating over 200 direct milling jobs alone. This can be done outside sensitive areas like beach fringe and reserves and close to existing roads. That fast, old growth logging could be done for, except “mom-and-pop” operations that support or manufacture specialty products.

The Forest Service says it and industry can’t move that fast. But that’s just wrong.

Alaska’s timber industry is already making money exporting young logs and processing small trees for window trim and door jambs. With new milling technology that could be inexpensively installed in Southeast Alaska within a few months, far more logs could be kept for local processing instead of sent overseas. And the federal government, working with the state’s congressional delegation, could make capital investments in milling upgrades rapidly affordable with low-interest government loans or loan guarantees.

This isn’t the first time change has come to the Forest Service. In the 1990s, the agency was forced by court order to transition out of old-growth logging in the Pacific Northwest. Then, too, some of the agency resisted change. But others, like the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon embraced it. They rapidly shifted to young tree logging that sent non-controversial logs to mills, made a profit, and kept jobs. Oregon’s trees are different from Alaska’s, but the need for—and benefits of—bold, transformative actions are the same.

Fortunately, there is still time for the Tongass to embrace a swift transition that will benefit both the industry and the region’s world-class rainforests. The agency needs to develop the fast transition scenario it has thus far dismissed. It has to give up old school thinking on technical issues like log length that artificially reduce projected timber volumes from young growth acreage. And it should rapidly complete an already-designed wood quality study—with industry participation—to demonstrate the marketability of locally processed young growth products.

For the sake of the region, its inhabitants and the rainforest, the Forest Service needs to get its “can do” back, embrace the change already largely happening in Southeast Alaska, “quickly” transition away from old growth, and make good on Secretary Vilsack’s vision.

• Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist of the Geos Institute and is editor of “Temperate and boreal rainforests of the world: ecology and conservation.” Jim Furnish is former deputy chief of the Forest Service and supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest.

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