Editor's note: The following commentary was written in response to a July 11 commentary written by Larry Edwards, titled "Alaska's chief forester should get the ax for fibbing to Congress."
Greenpeace recently alleged that Alaska's State Forester, Chris Maisch, misled Congress with his June 25, 2013 testimony to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Actually, the state forester's testimony was correct. Perhaps Greenpeace should be more careful about their fact-checking. For example, Greenpeace asserts that the state forester, mislead Congress by not acknowledging that the Tongass is "two-thirds glaciers, ice caps, rocky peaks, muskegs and scrubby trees." Actually, only about 22 percent of the Tongass is alpine meadows (including some rocks) and glaciers. Muskegs bring the total non-forested acreage to about 6.9 million acres or 41 percent, not two-thirds.
The state forester pointed out that only 4 percent of the Tongass is currently managed for timber production, but Greenpeace calls the statement "absurd" and alleges that "the overwhelming portion of the other 96 percent of the Tongass is non-forest and unloggable landforms." Actually, with the re-imposition of the Roadless Rule on Alaska, only 2 percent of the Tongass is managed for timber. What is overwhelming and absurd is the amount of commercial timberland that is currently off-limits -- in fact 94 percent of the commercial timberland on the Tongass is currently off-limits to timber harvesting.
Greenpeace calls the state forester "deceptive" because the he compared the Tongass timber industry to that of West Virginia because "West Virginia has far more commercial quality forest that the Tongass." Actually, the Tongass has about 10 million acres of forestland compared to West Virginia's 16 million acres, but that hardly accounts for the difference in timber jobs -- 30,000 versus 457. Greenpeace asserts the difference is because the climate in West Virginia grows trees faster and because West Virginia is closer to markets. The real reason West Virginia has more timber employment is because only about 10 percent of its timberland is controlled by the federal government while over 90 percent of the land in Southeast Alaska is under federal management.
Lastly, Greenpeace alleges the state forester played a "shell-game" with employment figures for Southeast Alaska by using the peak timber harvest year of 1990 and ignoring private timber jobs. The choice of 1990 is not part of a conspiracy to misinform; 1990 is commonly used as a beginning benchmark for the decline in timber supply from federal lands in Alaska because that is the year the Congress welshed on the 1980 promise of a fixed, non-declining timber supply for the region. Native harvest that year was about half of the total harvest, but most of the native pulp logs and low-grade sawlogs were processed in the local mills and thus contributed significantly to local employment. Harvest on the Tongass actually peaked in the 1970s and overall timber employment in the region was reasonably stable until the timber supply declined -- after 1990.
Greenpeace also took issue with some of the school enrollment statistics that the state forester mentioned, but those statistics are accurate and the point is, the small communities are hurting; as stated in the Governors Timber Task Force Report: "The downward spiral of the Southeast timber industry has adversely affected communities, schools, and local economies." Anyone who knows the real history of the timber industry in Southeast Alaska would scoff at the Greenpeace allegations of disinformation and the personal attack on the state forester is pretty low, even for Greenpeace.
Owen Graham is executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, a forest products industry group based in Ketchikan.
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