My Turn: A small sawmill operator’s perspective on the Tongass Land Management Plan Amendment

  • Monday, March 21, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

As a small sawmill operator and builder, I’ve watched with great interest the debate over a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. In a recent visit to Washington D.C., I spoke with lawmakers and agency officials about how the future of my family-run business, the Tenakee Logging Company, will be impacted. Many other small businesses in the region could be impacted by decisions they make in the coming months.

Much of the debate has focused on the transition from old-growth clear-cutting to young growth timber and how long that transition should take. That’s the wrong conversation. From where I stand the right conversation would be about how we make the best use of our shared forest resources moving forward.

My company depends on old-growth timber. We selectively log large individual trees so that the habitat is left intact and surrounding trees and brush get more light, stimulating faster growth and helping to keep the forest healthy. We then turn those logs into dimensional lumber, roof shingles and shakes, bevel siding and specialty wood products used to make things like guitars and carved paddles popular with tourists.

Our customers also include shipwrights working to rebuild the fishing fleet in places like Haines and Sitka, and construction workers rebuilding our aging infrastructure. Many buildings in Southeast Alaska need renovation or reconstruction. All the trees we log and cut stay in Alaska where they are worked by the hands of Alaskans.

By contrast, clear-cutting old-growth trees only to export them as round logs or with minimal processing is like sending decades of sustainable timber out of the forest every year. That kind of industrial-scale logging creates some jobs felling trees and loading them onto ships bound for Washington State and Asia but most of their economic value is lost to Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is the only forest in the country that allows up to 50 percent of all old-growth logs to be exported overseas without any local processing.

A smarter transition would treat our remaining old-growth forests like an endowment, to be sustainably managed so they support our Alaska way of life continuously over generations. Southeast Alaska’s temperate rain-forests harbor the best habitat for salmon and other fish and wildlife and are a foundation of the world-class natural beauty and bounty that has made tourism and fishing the top economic engines for the region. Old-growth forests can also be part of a diverse, sustainable timber economy.

A smarter transition would stop treating old-growth like a windfall spent carelessly with little regard for the future. Yet that’s exactly what is continuing with the Big Thorne Timber Sale where clearcut logging begun last year. The timber sale is the largest in the last 20 years, at 6,000 acres and 100 million board-feet, in some of the best habitat remaining on Prince of Wales Island. Most of that old-growth timber will be exported overseas or down south with little or no local processing. More large-scale export dependent timber sales are in the works on the Tongass.

We are excited to work together with conservationists and the Forest Service to develop a market for young growth timber products. That will take some time and experimentation. At the same time, we believe we can continue, virtually forever, to selectively log older trees to support the many homegrown and grassroots small timber operators in the region, about 36 all together by my count. Those jobs can be passed down from generation to generation.

We care not only about delivering a high quality product to our buyers but also about the economic health of our communities and the health of our shared forest home. Moving forward, let’s start treating our Southeast Alaskan temperate rainforest like the unique local asset it is and keep the benefits it provides right here in Alaska. Along with sustainable logging, the billion dollar salmon and tourism industries also depend on it.

• Gordon Chew owns and operates Tenakee Logging Company with his son Sterling. The company has been the largest employer in Tenakee Springs for the last two years.

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