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Murkowski, Parnell aim to turn back clock in Tongass

Austin Williams

While the vast majority of Southeast Alaska has moved on, Gov. Sean Parnell seems stuck in the past. And U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski appears to be right there with him.

At an oversight hearing before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week, Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch called for Congress to hand over two million acres of the most productive lands in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to the state of Alaska, and to make the most valuable remaining old-growth timber in the Tongass available to be clear-cut logged and shipped overseas. 

Sen. Murkowski, lending her support, blamed the decline of the Southeast Alaska timber industry on federal policies, environmental lawsuits and stringent regulations, ignoring the fact that for decades logging on the Tongass occurred at unsustainable levels and was only able to maintain itself due to massive government subsidies. She implied that if only the Forest Service increased the amount of clear-cut logging allowed on the Tongass, the timber industry could return to its former past when two large pulp mills consumed vast volumes of the Tongass’ rare old-growth trees.

It’s hard to believe the senator is so out of touch with what is going on in Southeast Alaska. The Parnell administration’s demand that the American people hand over millions of acres of their wildest national forest to special interests is absurd. It puts ideology ahead of what is best for the economy and long-term health of the region.

The last thing Southeast Alaska needs is a return to a massive old-growth logging program in the Tongass. Southeast is sustained by a healthy forest that produces tens of millions of wild salmon every year, providing more than 7,200 jobs in a billion-dollar salmon fishing industry. The region is also fueled by tourism, which creates more than 10,000 jobs that depend on beautiful scenery in its natural state, not unsightly clear cuts. According to Forest Service figures, the Tongass supports just 107 jobs in logging and milling at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of more than $23 million annually in timber and road expenses. That’s more than $200,000 per job.

The Tongass is facing very real and tangible threats from those that wish to cast aside the most productive salmon watersheds and wildlife habitat on our public lands so they can liquidate its rare and valuable old-growth timber. It’s time for Congress and the Obama Administration to step up to the plate and ensure that we don’t reverse the progress made over the past few years in the Tongass. 

In May 2010, the Forest Service pledged to transition away from large-scale old-growth logging in the Tongass and move toward young-growth forest products and supporting job creation in existing industries such as fishing, seafood processing, tourism, visitor services and alternative energy. Despite the promising statement from three years ago, the Forest Service has yet to make good on its transition pledge.  Funding for visitor services, recreation and watershed restoration is woefully inadequate. The agency is still high-centered on old-growth logging. It has 130 million board feet of timber under contract to cut and plans to sell another 600 million board feet over the next five years. In his testimony on Tuesday, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell noted that a 100 million board foot timber sale, dubbed Big Thorne, will be released soon. It would be the largest old-growth timber sale in the Tongass since the pulp mill days and a step in the wrong direction.

Sen. Murkowski and the state of Alaska painted a grim portrayal of Southeast Alaska in Tuesday’s hearing. Contrary to their notion that the region’s population and jobs are shrinking, Southeast Alaska’s population has been growing since its low point in 2007, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  Some of the fastest growing communities are on Prince of Wales Island, an area once dominated by logging. According to an October 2012 report by the Southeast Conference, a regional trade group that monitors economic trends, the region’s total student count increased slightly in 2012 for the first time since 1996 and “the population of Southeast Alaska children, after a long steep decline, is finally on the rise.”

Southeast Alaska has the largest seafood industry workforce in the state and, in 2011 and 2012, was the most lucrative region in Alaska for commercial salmon fishing, according to state government data.

Rather than misleading people into thinking that the main barrier to job creation in Southeast Alaska is a lack of logging, Sen. Murkowski and Gov. Parnell should be championing the real drivers of the region’s economy: fishing and tourism, and the productive salmon watersheds and scenic beauty of the Tongass National Forest that sustains them.

Austin Williams first came to Alaska in 2003 to work for the U.S. Forest Service in Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island. After leaving Alaska to earn his J.D. from the University of Oregon, he returned to Alaska in 2009. Williams now lives in Anchorage with his wife and son. As the Alaska Forest Program Manager for Trout Unlimited, Williams oversees TU's work on the Tongass Transition promoting sustainable management for wild salmon, recreation and tourism. When not at work, Williams enjoys fly fishing and spends as much time as possible casting for wild salmon, trout, steelhead and Dolly Varden in the Tongass National Forest.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.