Environment: U.S. Forest Service plans to transition away from old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest

Tongass National Forest map

After many years of conflict over logging plans, the Forest Service will transition away from harvesting old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest.

Agency hopes to complete the shift to sustainable second-growth timber harvests in 10 to 15 years

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The U.S. Forest Service says it will back away from logging old growth in the country’s biggest national forest — Alaska’s 17-million acre Tongass — but not until after completing the  already approved Big Thorne timber sale.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the agency’s plan to to conserve the old-growth forests by speeding the transition to management of second-growth forests. Vilsack said the goal is to increase second-growth timbers until they make up the vast majority of logging projects withing 10 to 15 years. Read the full memorandum here.

The Tongass contains large stands of old-growth rainforest, and provides world-class recreation and fishing while supporting local communities through a variety of economic activities.

“The Tongass National Forest is a national treasure. Today, I am outlining a series of actions by USDA and the Forest Service that will protect the old-growth forests of the Tongass while preserving forest jobs in southeast Alaska,” Secretary Vilsack said last week. “I am asking the Forest Service to immediately begin planning for the transition to harvesting second growth timber while reducing old-growth harvesting over time,” he said.

“The actions we are taking today create an opportunity to demonstrate that conservation of old-growth forests can be economically beneficial for communities,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “The transition will maintain an integrated wood products industry and help sustain communities in southeast Alaska. Finally, we can move beyond the controversial debate on old-growth forests and focus our resources on supporting jobs.”

A persistent challenge on the Tongass National Forest has been low availability of second growth timber for use by the forest industry, making a transition away from old growth timber difficult. Flexibility, like that provided in the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, recently passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is critical to making second growth forest available for timber harvest.

As part of the actions announced today, Secretary Vilsack noted USDA’s commitment to achieving this flexibility. Additional actions announced today by the Secretary include:

  • Allocating Forest Service staff and financial resources to development of second growth sales.
  • Developing a new work plan for the Tongass that includes a growing mix of second growth projects.
  • Asking the Forest Service to consider an amendment to the Tongass National Forest land management plan that would speed the transition.
  • Supporting research into second growth management and market development.
  • Working with USDA’s Rural Development mission to facilitate retooling of the forest industry so that second growth timber can be harvested and processed economically.
  • Approval for establishment of a Federal Advisory Committee to provide stakeholder input on the transition to second growth.

Federal officials said the Big Thorne timbers sale is important to provide an existing supply of timber for forest industry in the region during the transition.

The Big Thorne timber sale would cut 123 million board feet of old  growth from about 5,000 acres of central Prince of Wales Island. Conservation advocates opposed to the sale say it would impact valuable deer, bear, and wolf habitat that has already been hit hard by industrial-scale logging.

The proposal calls for clear-cutting the remaining gaps between previously logged areas, blocking wildlife movement up and down entire mountainsides, according to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which listed the following concerns:

  • Although the Forest Service claims Big Thorne is a “component of a larger stewardship effort,” this sale continues business as normal and does not commit to carrying out any specific stewardship or restoration work in the project area.
  • The Forest Service also claims this sale is needed “for a reliable, economic, and long-term supply of timber for local mills” but it continues to allow timber operators to export up to 50 percent of the logs cut to the lower 48 or Asian markets.
  • The proposed sale targets the remaining essential winter deer habitat in an area heavily used by subsistence and sport hunters even though the project area currently does not meet Forest Plan goals for deer numbers
  • The plan does not address the cumulative effects of years of logging low elevation, large-tree stands on surrounding Federal, State, and Native Corporation land.
  • The project area already exceeds the number of road miles optimal for deer and wolves, and the plan proposes to build more roads, but only plans to carry out approved road storage and decommissioning “as funding is available.”
  • It reopens the Upper Steelhead, Cobble, and the Boy Scout watersheds for logging that could recover full hydrologic function if left alone for 20 more years.
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