The Tongass is our nation's largest national forest and its nearly 17 million acres are tucked along the rugged coast of Southeast Alaska. The Tongass supports bountiful fisheries, a robust tourism industry, several mining operations and a moderately sized timber industry. Up until recently it was also a very controversial place.
I represented fisheries in the region as a member of the Tongass Advisory Committee, which was formed from a diverse set of stakeholders from across the region to advise the U.S. Forest Service on the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment. The council included 14 other members who represented timber, conservation and Native interests. After more than a year and a half of meetings and public input, the council unanimously agreed to a set of recommendations that included guidance on transitioning the timber industry from old-growth harvest to a focus on young growth and identified lands where both timber harvest would occur and not occur in the future.
Given that the debate about where timber harvest should occur in the Tongass has raged back and forth in the courts, halls of Congress and in many community forums across the region for almost 50 years, it was an incredible achievement for timber interests, conservationists, Alaska Natives and community stakeholders to come together on a unified vision for the various uses of our national forest. The debate within the council was contentious at times but good-faith compromise won out in the end and a consensus among these very diverse interests was reached. The Forest Service integrated the council's recommendations into their preferred alternative for the amended forest plan and some 60,000 Americans supported that alternative. It truly seemed like a new day was dawning on the once-divisive Tongass National Forest. Until, that is, Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently introduced draft legislation for a national wildfire bill that was saddled with special provisions to turn back the clock on the Tongass to the days of old.
This draft legislation includes provisions that indefinitely delay the proposed forest plan amendment until after an unreasonably exhaustive inventory of young growth timber on all 462,000 acres of previously logged lands — including lands along salmon streams and other sensitive areas where future logging is not allowed. This would make for new controversy and years of delay for both the plan amendment and the council recommendations that form its basis, if they ever see the light of day at all.
The senator is not only rendering all the time, effort and consensus of the council and Forest Service moot, she's also ignoring the voice of the 3,500 or so Southeast Alaskans who commented in support of the plan.
As a member of the council and resident of Southeast, I see this as egregious. As a fisherman, I see this as the senator picking timber over fisheries as a primary sustainable economic driving influence as well as other industries with proven modern economically viable uses of the Tongass.
We ask our leaders to ensure the will of the majority prevails; however, in this case it appears the senator has chosen to trade true representation for the ability to promote a special-interest agenda. The public is tired of timber wars and thought we had found a way past them in the recommendations of the Tongass Advisory Council. The senator should respect the will of the people who live and work here and withdraw the Tongass provision from the wildfire bill, for if the senator does not allow the public process and the unanimous decision of council recommendations to proceed, this just may be her greatest way to "clear cut" and extirpate her own constituency in the region.
Kirk Hardcastle served as the fisheries representative on the Tongass Advisory Council. He lives in Juneau.
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