My Turn: Tongass reform anniversary is cause for celebration

  • Sunday, November 29, 2015 1:01am
  • Opinion

It has been 25 years since the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) was signed into law. This legislation became the most significant piece of conservation law signed by President George H. W. Bush.

Many Southeast Alaskans are intimately familiar with this remarkable landmark legislation. Why was it so important? Before 1990 the Forest Service was mandated by law to spend at least $40 million a year to supply 450 million board feet of Tongass timber annually for the two behemoth pulp mills in Southeast Alaska. To help put all this in perspective, that’s about 10 times more old growth timber, on a yearly basis, than proposed for logging under the preferred alternative in the draft Tongass Forest Plan released last week. Keep in mind however, that the Tongass is the only national forest in the country that still allows rare old-growth forests to be logged on an industrial scale.

The TTRA wouldn’t have been possible without a die-hard group of dedicated Southeast Alaskans going to Washington, D.C. to make their case. Time and time again, salt-of-the-earth denizens of the Tongass walked the marble halls of Capitol Hill in their Xtra-tuff’s. At every House and Senate office they hand-delivered jars of homemade canned salmon. They tirelessly urged elected officials to support major conservation measures for our nation’s largest, wettest, and wildest NATIONAL forest. Ultimately, the tidal wave of support from grassroots Alaskans, and overwhelming support from across the United States, resulted in Alaska Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens joining 97 other senators to pass the bill by a vote of 99-0.

When President Bush signed the Tongass Timber Reform Act into law on Nov. 29, 1990, it repealed the timber subsidy and cut the timber supply mandate. It also set aside 1.4 million acres of prime salmon-producing forest watersheds like the Chuck River, Lisianski River, Salmon Bay, Karta River, Nutkwa and Kadashan. Alaska’s commercial fishermen fully understand the importance of habitat. That’s why the Alaska Trollers Association, Southeast Seiner Boat Owners and Operators, United Southeast Gillnetters Association, Petersburg Vessel Owners, and United Fishermen of Alaska all supported this legislation which was clearly aimed at safeguarding the pure waters and intact ancient forests of many major “salmon strongholds” within the Tongass.

Like most bills that become law, the final Tongass reform bill was a compromise. There were areas like Port Houghton, Castle River, and East Kuiu Island which were designated Wilderness in the 1989 House-passed version but not protected in the final bill. Twenty-five years later, I am heartened to see the Forest Service has taken the old-growth on these special lands off the chopping block. Although this represents a big step forward in conservation for Tongass salmon strongholds, I still harbor hope that these and other special Tongass watersheds will one day receive the lasting protection they deserve from Congress.

When I look over this latest draft Forest Plan, I feel really good about how far we’ve come from the dark days when the Forest Service planned to mow down 98 percent of the suitable timber base. Nevertheless, the Forest Service needs to take additional steps.

The vast majority of the agency’s budget — as well as focus in the draft Forest Plan — still goes to propping up a logging industry that represents less than one percent of the jobs in the region. The Tongass is also the last national forest to condone the controversial practice of old-growth clearcut logging. To make matters worse, up to half of these rare logs may be shipped overseas without local processing, thus compounding job and economic losses to the region.

It’s high time to chart a new and different chapter for the future of the Tongass. Instead of throwing millions of tax dollars a year on large timber sales designed for export for another 15 years, the Forest Service should shift their priorities now to finally figuring out how to best meet the needs of the local small mills that are adding a tremendous amount of value to their products and their communities. Forest management should enhance the salmon and tourism sectors of our economy. Such a forward-looking action would help us all embark on a new chapter for true Tongass Timber Reforms … together.

• Bart Koehler helped lead the grassroots effort to pass the Tongass Timber Reform Act. He was the executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council from 1984-1991 and 1995-1999, and currently serves on its board of directors.

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