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Back to the future? Effort to revitalize Tongass timber harvests gaining traction.

Pat Forgey
Tree trunks in Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. Xa'at via Flickr

The Tongass timber wars ended decades ago, won as much by economics as politics before the big pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka closed down in the mid-1990s.

But now there are efforts to re-open those battles, with the state of Alaska advocating for more logging, while environmental groups are riled up about what little timber harvest remains.

A new proposal backed by the Southeast Conference, the regional promotion organization that began before statehood, would revive large-scale logging with harvests of as much as 400 million board feet of timber per year.

"It evaluated the forest as a living, breathing mechanism that is flexible and that we're able to use to grow the habitat and use the resources, all at the same time," said Shelly Wright, executive director of Southeast Conference.

The new timber management strategy was developed by D.R. Systems NW, a Kirkland, Wash., forestry consulting firm. Southeast Conference paid for the study with a $650,000 state, Wright said.

The new strategy to boost logging came after Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell pulled the state out of the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a cooperative effort led by the U.S. Forest Service to develop new economic strategies for the 17-million-acre national forest.

Parnell in 2011 said he wanted the state "to pursue federal timber sales for traditional harvest."

The key to that, said Wright, is to have more land available for harvest. The proposal doesn't contemplate harvest in wilderness areas or monuments, which realistically can't be done. But it does propose ending "discretionary set asides," she said.

That would include the land covered by the "roadless rule" adopted under the Clinton administration, which survived challenges during two Bush administrations and the Obama administration. That rule prevents new roads in areas without existing roads.

Enough timber for a new industry

Wright said that Tongass land should be able to support a harvest of 400 million board feet per year. D.R. System's plan shows 300 million board feet per year expected harvest, with timber coming from both existing old-growth forest but also from new and existing regenerated forests.   

She said that could provide enough raw material not only for Viking Lumber, Southeast's remaining medium-sized sawmill, but an entirely new industry. The state Division of Forestry claims Viking could process 20 million board feet of timber a year if the mill runs one shift, and up to 60 million board feet running three shifts. Between 25 and 49 employees work per shift, according to state data.

"We're hoping to see new projects such as pellet mills, and new sawmills with an economy of scale that's going to be productive for the Tongass and for the communities of Southeast," she said.

Pellet mills use waste and scrap wood to make efficiently burning fuel pellets, but Southeast now imports its pellets from British Columbia and the Lower 48.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said the hopes of logging advocates are unrealistic.

"Can't we get past this?" asked Buck Lindekugel, the council's attorney.

He said the governor and those promoting a hope for creation of a new industry that would replace what was once a big economic engine in Southeast should put their efforts elsewhere.

At Southeast Conference's recent convention in Sitka, where the logging proposal was presented, the group also heard good news in its annual economic report.

"If you look at the numbers, the state of the economy, we're doing great, and we're doing great because of our commercial fishing, tourism and outdoor recreation industries are hot, and they're sustainable," he said.

"We've been cutting at an unsustainable rate for too long, not only on our national forest land, but on state land and private lands, and we just need to slow down," he said.

'Not going back to the glory days'

Wright, though, said the timber harvest plan would work and denied the logging advocates were trying to return to the "glory days" of the 1960s and 1970s in which logging was Southeast's primary industry.

"We're certainly not going back to the glory days where everything was mowed down, that's not what we're after," she said.

"We've been accused of always going back the glory days, but 400 million board feet is very doable within the Tongass National Forest without destroying any habitat," she said.

Logging opponents have also opposed the Forest Service's efforts to continue to offer smaller timber sales while the Tongass is in transition to new industries, including second-growth harvest.

Currently in the sights of national environmental groups and some members of Congress is the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island in the southern Tongass.

"Big Thorne would result in the destruction of trees up to 800 years old and 12 feet in diameter," warned Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut and Peter DeFaio, D-Oregon. The two lawmakers, joined by 70 others, urged a move away from "industrial scale old growth logging."

The Big Thorne sale was recently delayed by Regional Forester Beth Pendleton for additional studies of its prospective impact on wolves.

That sale amounts to 150 million board feet of timber over five years -- enough to help keep Viking Lumber operating for several years, state forestry officials said.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com