JUNEAU - Environmental groups that have stopped most logging on the Tongass National Forest with decades of opposition and lawsuits are now saying most of what remains could easily be done away with as well.
They're urging the U.S. Forest Service to stop spending its money on timber sales, and instead devote its limited budget to promoting tourism, fishing and other growth industries.
"These resources could be put to better use by investing in programs and projects that support larger and more vibrant industries," said Ben Alexander of Headwaters Economics at a Tuesday press conference hosted by Trout Unlimited.
The study by the Montana-based consulting firm contends the Forest Service's attempts to keep the industry alive in Alaska are too costly and efforts should be shifted elsewhere. Alexander is Headwaters' associate director.
Trout Unlimited's Austin Williams denied that the group was blaming the Forest Service for supporting a failed industry that it and similar groups had caused to fail.
"We are not in any way out there obstructing Forest Service activities in Southeast Alaska," he said. Williams said the group has "never once" litigated a timber sale.
The Headwaters report Trout Unlimited was promoting was funded by two environmentally inclined foundations, the Wilberforce Foundation and the Campion Foundation.
Those two funders have also bankrolled the Sierra Club, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Earthjustice programs in Alaska, among others frequent court challengers of timber sales.
Alexander refused to say how much Headwaters Economics had been paid for the report, saying that was a private matter between the firm and the foundations.
The report said that over the last several years the Forest Service in Alaska had spent between 34 and 45 percent of its budget on its timber program, but brought in comparatively little revenue.
They said the new Big Thorne sale on Prince of Wales Island is likely to cost $57 million to administer, but would bring in only $6 million. It has been challenged in court as well, by several environmental groups. Trout Unlimited is not among them.
Alaska Forest Association executive director Owen Graham disputed the Big Thorne cost numbers, saying the total cost to the Forest Service, including potential future expansions that will bring in more revenue, is likely to be around $6 million, and will pump $22 million into the local economy over a number of years just to harvest it.
"The numbers are horrible inaccurate, but then most environmental groups don't really care about accuracy, they just like to scream loud and get folks riled up," he said.
At a press conference later, Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said the Big Thorne sale cost $5 million to $6 million to develop and that when logging is complete the sale will probably bring in several million dollars more than that.
The Headwaters report said it calculated the $57 million cost estimate by dividing the costs of the timber sale program in recent years of smaller sales and calculating the cost per board foot harvested. It then multiplied that cost by the size of the Big Thorne.
The report also said the Forest Service wasn't moving fast enough with its promised transition away from non-renewable old-growth timber and towards a more sustainable harvest of less environmentally valuable second-growth timber.
The current Tongass Forest Plan calls for transitioning away from old growth, and from timber harvest in general as the forest's main focus, but Alexander and co-author Ross Gorte said that an analysis of Forest Service budget and staffing data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that wasn't happening quickly enough.
Graham said that such a change to young growth can be done, but it will take years until enough second-growth to support a mill becomes available.
Until then, he said, some old-growth will have to continue to be harvested or the last of the timber industry, including its single largest mill, Klawock's Viking Lumber, won't survive. It is not designed for smaller second-growth trees, he said.
But Gorte said that what remains of the timber industry just isn't that significant.
"Today's timber industry is a relatively minor part of the regional economy, accounting for less than 1 percent of the region's employment," he said.
"Does it make sense for an agency to spend more than a third of its budget on such a tiny economic sector?"
Alaska Dispatch Publishing