Can logging switch to second-growth sooner?

Trees start to grow back in a clearcut area on Admiralty Island, as seen from a float plane. A new study says second-growth timber can replace old growth within five years. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Can Southeast’s timber industry survive while only logging second-growth forests? An Oregon research group says it can. And it could happen sooner than many expect.

An organization called the Geos Institute just released a study based on new Forest Service data. It takes a look at acreage regrowing after earlier logging.

It concludes the Tongass National Forest has enough second-growth stands, also called young growth, to provide a steady supply of marketable timber. (Read the Tongass second-growth report.)

Dominick DellaSala is president and chief scientist for Geos. The Ashland, Oregon,-based group advocates protecting older forests to reduce climate change.

“The faster we can get the Forest Service to move out of old-grown logging, the better it will be, because the Tongass is such a global resource. And that would help with subsistence values and fisheries and the tourism that takes place on the Tongass,” DellaSala says.

The study, researched by Corvallis, Oregon-based Mater Limited, says trees can be harvested at the age of 55. Forest Service policy considers trees mature and ready to log at about 90.

DellaSala says that change, plus a few others, means the Tongass could switch to cutting second-growth trees within five years.

“That could be harvested over the next six decades at which time, forests that were already harvested that are younger would be available six decades out in to the future. So you can kind of continue this cycle of renewing the forest and going back into the second-growth and harvesting it again and never have to touch another stick of old growth,” DellaSala says.

The Sealaska regional Native corporation, headquartered in Juneau, has been harvesting second-growth trees for about the past five years.

Its timber subsidiary is one of its largest businesses. Rick Harris, executive vice president, says it’s been cutting and selling 50- to 75-year-old trees.

“We’ve been able to get those trees into the market and the market took them on an experimental basis. But in subsequent years, they’ve actually been asking for it,” Harris says.

Sealaska’s logs were sold in the round to mills in Asia. Most Forest Service sales require milling before export.

Harris says the study’s information is useful. But the Geos Institute underestimates the difficulty.

“They make a simple statement that all we have to do is change a few rules about when second growth can be harvested. Unfortunately, that rule is a federal statute. And our experience with getting federal statutes changed is that it’s very difficult. It can’t be done by the administration or by the Forest Service. It actually requires Congressional approval,” Harris says.

Sealaska has been trying for years to get Congress to change land-selection rules so it can boost its timber base. Despite increased support, it’s unlike that legislation will go anywhere this year.

Forest Service officials said they haven’’t fully reviewed the Geos Institute report.

But the Tongass is already transitioning from old- to second-growth logging. Officials have said it will take 10 to 15 years – maybe longer – before enough younger trees are of marketable size.

Other challenges must be overcome to speed such a transition.

Among them: Retooling Tongass-area mills and repairing old logging roads used during earlier harvests.

Geos Institute’s DellaSala says that cost could be covered by federal funds.

“We’re appropriating logging the old-growth forests, so it would just be a matter of evaluating the appropriations to deal with the infrastructure changes,” DellaSala says.

But it may not be that easy.

Sealaska’s Harris says second-growth timber would have to compete with a long-established supply from Northwest tree farms. Those companies have lower shipping and operational costs.

“This is not an easy just-flip-on-the-switch kind of thing. It’s going to take time to develop the skill to produce the boards and to be able to build the markets and be competitive in those markets,” Harris says.

A 2011 study, by Oregon forest appraiser Ray Granvall, said the Forest Service badly overestimated its harvestable second-growth acreage.

Granvall said such stands won’t have commercial potential for decades. The Forest Service disagreed with his conclusions.

Sign up for The Signal

Top Alaska stories delivered to your inbox every week

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications