The Tongass Advisory Committee, convened by the U.S. Forest Service to discuss management of the Tongass in a time of transition from old-growth logging, is set to offer recommendations soon.
Southeast Alaska has a diverse economy and timber represents just a fraction of the economic activity that keeps our small towns alive. The transition from old-growth logging began in the mid-1990s with the closure of the Sitka and Ketchikan pulp mills. Southeast Alaska has not had industrial-scale timber harvest on the Tongass for two decades, and our communities have, through creative work and flexible thought, proven that they can thrive without it.
Over this period of time, the fishing industry has been resurgent, catching more fish for higher value, and providing over a billion dollars per year of economic activity. The tourism industry has grown responsibly into another billion-dollar industry region-wide. The shipbuilding and marine services sector is providing hundreds of jobs in Ketchikan, Wrangell and other towns. With a total population of about 75,000 people, these are big numbers spread over Southeast Alaska's small population base.
Small-scale specialty manufacturers of wood products scattered throughout rural Southeast have found niche markets for high-value-added products ranging from musical instruments to fine furniture and custom woodworking products. These entrepreneurs have been able to find the wood they need under the current plan.
Congress' recent finalization of Sealaska Corp.'s land claims was justified by a desire to boost the region's overall timber economy by increasing timber activity on corporation lands. Developing Sealaska's additional 68,000 acres as an industrial forest negates the need for the Tongass to provide additional harvest from federally managed lands to keep the timber industry "alive."
Increased timber activity on this private land will fully utilize current industry capacity, bring new investment in training and equipment, and fulfill the perceived need to provide support to existing business interests. Local timber businesses should be able to source wood from this newly private land at market rates without relying on subsidized timber from federal lands.
There have been proposals to transfer large portions of the Tongass National Forest to the state of Alaska. I take a firm and unequivocal stand against these proposals. The state agencies charged with regulating the extractive industries in Alaska have been captured by industry, promoting short-term gains to industry players rather than safeguarding the long-term interests of the state.
The current budget problems facing Alaska raise serious questions about the ability of the state to take on any new responsibilities. Recent logging on state lands on Prince of Wales Island has returned to the wasteful clear-cut practices of the past, in some places adjacent to fish streams, recreational cabins and other tourism infrastructure. There is no indication that future state managers would be any more respectful of the main economic drivers of the region.
The Tongass Advisory Committee was formed of stakeholders selected by Forest Service managers and was given a strict set of guidelines that has, I believe, led it to a pre-determined conclusion that the Tongass should continue to be managed aggressively for timber production.
As an alternative, I believe that the conservation strategy embodied in the current Forest Plan should be viewed as a minimum baseline and made stronger through the work of a scientific panel. I believe that the transition from old-growth harvest on federal lands should be immediate, and that the supply of wood for the remaining industry should be provided from the private land held by the Native corporations.
The second-growth industry will develop over time at an appropriate scale without changes to the Forest Plan as markets develop and the cost differential between Alaska and other sources for this product clarify the long-term viability of the industry.
The committee should be conservative in any recommendations to change the Forest Plan, and should dismiss claims that urgent action is necessary based on the economic need of any individual or firm. Southeast Alaska will do just fine without a return to the industrial export-driven logging of the past.
Bob Claus is a retired Alaska State Trooper and a former executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. He is a long-term resident of Prince of Wales Island. His primary uses of the forest are recreational and subsistence. These views are not representative of any organization.