As it gears up for its public meeting in Juneau, the Tongass Advisory Committee is almost ready to make its recommendations on the future of our largest national forest. As a resident of the Tongass, I want to express my hope that the TAC will speak for the many diverse users of our forest and recommend a management plan that protects and enhances the economy that sustains us.
Recognizing that clear-cut logging of old-growth forests cannot be sustained in the long term, the Forest Service brought together this 15-member committee as part of its 2010 "Transition Framework." The TAC is tasked with advising the Forest Service on how best to move rapidly away from large-scale old-growth logging toward an industry focused on renewable young growth, "while recognizing the equally important resource values of the Tongass, such as tourism, recreation, fishing, subsistence and renewable energy." The trouble is that the TAC, despite the Forest Service's assurance that it represents a "broad and diverse range of viewpoints and expertise," is heavily skewed in favor of timber interests.
Timber industry representatives hold three seats on the TAC, despite timber accounting for less than 1 percent of Southeast Alaska's economy. Meanwhile, tourism and fishing, which together account for 20 percent of our economy, have been essentially ignored, with only one representative between them. Today the fishing and tourism industries are the beating heart of the economy of the Tongass, yet their voices will not be heard when the TAC makes its recommendations.
Previous meetings have shown that the TAC is primarily focused on timber and is considering controversial recommendations such as logging beach fringe and old-growth reserves, reducing scenery standards and prolonging the transition away from old-growth logging. Five years have already passed since the Forest Service's directive to transition out of old growth, yet the makeup and current direction of the TAC make clear that Forest Service officials have not taken this directive seriously.
In her recent opinion piece titled "Tongass is big enough to provide both pristine beauty and livelihoods" (ADN, Nov. 21), Shelly Wright, director of the Southeast Conference, contended that there is plenty of room for expanding the Tongass timber industry. Ms. Wright stated that only 2.6 percent of the Tongass has been logged since the industry began in earnest in the 1950s. This number is disturbingly misleading for two reasons. First, two-thirds of the Tongass consists of rock, ice, muskeg and scrub land, areas completely unsuitable for logging. When considering only the high-volume stands that the timber industry targets -- the best of our ancient forest, comprising a mere 4 percent of the Tongass' acreage -- one finds that half this acreage has already been cut. Second, this figure neglects Native corporation land, a tremendous amount of which has been clear-cut.
Ms. Wright also describes the "full-scale war" that environmentalists continue to wage on the timber industry – to the point that the industry is one-tenth of its former size and shrinking. Yet this is also misleading, as it is the losing economics of Tongass timber under its antiquated management regime that ultimately drives its decline. The industry has long been dependent on extensive taxpayer subsidies, with the federal subsidy amounting to $130,000 per timber job in 2013. Clearly, the current management plan of large-scale clear-cutting of old-growth timber for export as round logs to Asia doesn't pencil out. Not only does it rely on taxpayer support, but more importantly it ignores and threatens the prospering industries of tourism and fishing, which both depend on healthy, intact forests. This simply doesn't make economic sense. It's time to transition to a new model: a local, small-scale, value-added wood products industry focused primarily on second-growth timber and "micro" sales of selectively logged old growth for local mills -- with all logging taking place on the existing road system. Small local mills generate more jobs per tree cut than shipping logs overseas in the round. I wholeheartedly support a viable timber industry on the Tongass, and I hope that the TAC will help the timber industry achieve a transition towards true, long-term viability.
Will the TAC recognize the Tongass for what it is: a precious national treasure, a stronghold of increasingly rare old-growth temperate rainforest that makes us a world-class destination? Will they choose to maintain this highly productive ecosystem that provides the foundation for more than 10,000 jobs in the thriving industries of tourism and fishing, not to mention the recreation and subsistence values that enrich all of our lives? Or will the TAC opt to sacrifice this treasure by recommending an irreparable last spasm of old-growth clear-cutting that not only harms the industries and locals who depend on the forest for other uses but ultimately harms and discredits the timber industry as well?
We all love the Tongass, and we all want to see it thrive. We all want our children and grandchildren to experience it as we have. Let us invest in economically viable industries -- including a new timber industry -- that keep the benefits here in our communities, and that preserve our forest resource in perpetuity.
Zachary Brown grew up in Gustavus, earned a Ph.D. in environmental science from Stanford University and is founding director of the Inian Islands Institute.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.