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Federal overreach in Tongass National Forest affects all Alaskans

John Coghill
OPINION: Alaskans should be deeply troubled by federal overreach. The federal “anti-industry management style” in the Tongass National Forest has largely suffocated the private timber industry there. Xa'at via Flickr

We Alaskans should be deeply troubled by what is happening with regard to federal overreach. One sad story is the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The federal “anti-industry management style” has largely suffocated the private timber industry. Harvests are a mere fraction of what they once were. Of the 16.9 million acres in the National Forest, we are now only harvesting a mere few thousand acres. Jobs continue to evaporate. Livelihoods are lost. People are forced to move or drastically change their lifestyles to continue living in the area.

The unilateral, multi-year, aggressive action in Tongass erodes confidence in federal government management. Broken federal promises (as found in Southeast) have become the challenge in Southcentral, the Interior, the West, and the North. As demonstrated by the recent, overtly-intimidating incident involving the EPA and the Fortymile miners, Alaskans should be alerted to a troubling, prevailing theme by federal agencies: Private natural resource development (and the jobs that come with it) are not welcome. In fact, disturbingly, even existing industry risks fundamental rule changes (thereby making private projects cost prohibitive).

The restrictions in Tongass are especially ironic. At statehood, Alaska was promised access to its natural resources in order to sustain itself and lessen its dependence on the federal government to survive. That same federal government now stands with its “boot on the throat” of the Southeast timber industry.

So, how did the situation in Tongass occur?

The federal government has systematically eroded most of the legal commitments contained in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

What happened?

The ANILCA “Grand Bargain” for the Tongass was that 5.4 million acres of Wilderness would be designated in exchange for a guaranteed timber sale level of 450 million board feet per year. $40 million per year was also guaranteed to build the roads and infrastructure needed to support the expected timber harvest. The remaining portion of the 16.9-million-acre forest was supposed to be deemed open to mining and renewable energy resource development (in accordance with multiple-use management principles).

The federal promise began to break with the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 (TTRA). With the TTRA, Congress rejected ANILCA’s guaranteed timber sale level and the infrastructure funds to support it. Additionally, the TTRA removed another 200,000 acres of the Tongass from development.

Environmental litigation and the Clinton administration forced the closure of two pulp mills. The result was a stunning loss of direct and indirect jobs causing huge economic and social upheaval in the communities in Southeast Alaska.

In 1997, the Tongass Land Management Plan came out. The plan reduced the harvest amount to 267 million board feet per year. Unfortunately, the timber sales were subsequently halted by the 9th Circuit (in 2005) over the Forest Service’s error in methodology for calculating timber volumes. The injunction remained in effect until the Forest Service produced an amended Forest Plan in 2008. Like the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan, the 2008 Amended Forest Plan allowed, again, for 267 million board feet per year.

As one may imagine, these delays were very damaging to private industry.

Around that same time (in 2001), the Clinton Administration also published the Roadless Rule (which opposed further road construction for expected resource development). Despite overtures to exempt Tongass, then, alternatively to defer implementation of the Rule, the Rule was immediately applied to Tongass.

According to the Record of Decision, 1,000 jobs were lost.

The Roadless Rule further, unilaterally, changed the “Grand Bargain” in ANILCA. What does this mean? 92 percent of the forest, effectively, was locked up (despite express promises to the contrary). The state subsequently sued and, in 2003, settled the case with the federal government on the basis that the Tongass would be exempt from the rule.

Another blow came in May 2010 when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unilaterally issued a Memorandum stating that it was the Forest Service’s goal to prevent all timber harvest in “Inventoried Roadless Areas” and proposed, instead, a transition to 2nd growth timber on previously existing roaded portions of the Tongass. Second growth timber is the forest growth which follows either partial or total cutting of the original forest.

On July 2, 2013 Secretary Vilsack issued a memorandum prohibiting harvest of old growth timber in “Inventoried Roadless Areas” in favor of a transition to second growth.

Why are these actions problems for the timber industry and other natural resource development?

The timber industry is adamant that it would be uneconomic to harvest second-growth timber. Also, the de facto roadless areas are making mining so cost-prohibitive that many in the industry are severely constrained.

What can Alaskans do to help?

Alaskans should get involved to ensure that this trend is resisted whenever possible. I recommend that we citizens go to this site: http://dnr.alaska.gov/commis/cacfa/ and sign up for the Alaska Lands Update. The updates will show when federal entities have scoping periods and periods for comments on land management plans. As comment periods occur around the state, I encourage Alaskans (either directly affected by the proposed federal plans or who have an interest in stopping continuing federal overreach), to make their voices heard.

The future of the state depends on it.

Senator John Coghill is the Senate Majority Leader in the Alaska State Legislature.  He is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and member of the Citizens' Advisory Commission on Federal Areas.

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