Bumps likely in the long road to a new Tongass plan?

The Forest Service's direction to produce a plan that is “ecologically, environmentally, and economically sustainable” is a significant challenge, as managers reckon with a forest that is huge, but also fragile.
The Forest Service’s direction to produce a plan that is “ecologically, environmentally, and economically sustainable” is a significant challenge, as managers reckon with a forest that is huge, but also fragile. (Photo courtesy USDA)

The Forest Service is planning to shift its focus from old-growth to young-growth timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest.

The transition to young growth got its start early in the Obama administration, and there could be at least three more presidents before it becomes a full reality.

The public comment period on proposed amendments to the Tongass Land Management Plan is open now through Feb. 22. Visit the Tongass Plan Amendment website for complete information on changes to the plan and how to comment. Most of the proposed changes are contained in an all-new Chapter 5.

The current version of the Tongass Land Management Plan has been around since 2008. It’s this telephone-book sized set of guidelines for managing all the resources on the Tongass National Forest: timber, wildlife habitat, fisheries, archaeology — you name it.

Shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, his new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, gave a major speech about how the Forest Service was going to take a more holistic approach to the nation’s forests. He wanted managers to think about the importance of forests in producing clean water, for instance, and for sequestering carbon.

Then in 2013, Secretary Vilsack issued a memo directing the Forest Service to begin this work on the Tongass — the nation’s largest forest — where the clear-cutting of large stands of centuries-old trees was still common practice. So, it was time to update the Tongass Forest plan.

A logging road reconstructed to state highway on Prince of Wales Island, Tongass National Forest. Under the proposed plan, many areas of the Tongass will remain roadless. (USDA photo/Jack Oien)
A logging road reconstructed to a state highway on Prince of Wales Island. Under the proposed plan, many areas of the Tongass will remain roadless. (Photo by Jack Oien/USDA)

“Our scope is pretty narrow. Our scope is a transition away from old growth, to young growth, in a 15-year time frame.”

This is Susan Howle, the Forest Plan Amendment project manager, speaking at an open house in Sitka in January, one of several held around Southeast. Young growth refers to the new trees that have sprung up in old clearcuts. They’re nowhere near as large as their predecessors, but there are a lot of them.

Howle said that there had already been a significant amount of public comment on the plan over the past year-and-a-half, and that the transition to young-growth wasn’t the only issue.

“The transition to young growth, renewable energy, roadless areas, and finally wildlife habitat and a conservation strategy.”

The plan aims to create a Tongass National Forest that, in the words of Secretary Vilsack, is “ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable.”

Andrew Thoms, director of the Sitka Conservation Society, attended the open house. He thought the Forest Service was headed in the right direction.

“The proposed plan that the Forest Service put together has a lot of really good tools in it, especially for renewable energy and doing renewable energy projects like our Blue Lake hydroelectric project in Sitka, and for doing habitat restoration. And outlines, of course, what logging would look like that conserves high-priority ecological areas, salmon-producing areas, and tries to supply timber for a timber industry that can exist using this plan. I think that it will get adopted by this administration, and that it will survive into the next administration and be implemented, because it’s a good plan.”

The timber supply has always been the most politically-charged aspect of Tongass management. The attitude towards Tongass timber in the last century was that it was almost limitless, and endlessly-renewable. Managers now look at a far more complicated picture — one that portrays the Tongass as a vast-but-fragile ecosystem.

The proposed plan amendment would ramp up young-growth harvests and dramatically scale back the cutting of old-growth timber — but not eliminate it entirely. The proposed old-growth harvest level is 5-million board feet a year.

Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards says these older trees serve an important niche.

“Some things like musical wood. You need to have those really old trees, really tightly-grained trees to make guitars and violins, and some of those things. But the intent here is that some of those things are going to be really the minority of what we’re going to be harvesting in the transition, versus right now where it is nearly all that we harvest.”

Groups like the Sitka Conservation Society consider this an acceptable trade-off — to transition the Tongass to young-growth, plus adopt a more holistic approach to managing the Tongass ecosystem — all for 5-million board feet of old growth a year. Historically, Tongass harvests were measured in the hundreds of millions of board feet.

Again, Andrew Thoms.

“It’s a big forest. There’s a lot of forest out there, but you can run out of wood. We’ve seen that from the legacy of pulp mill days. And it’s incumbent on the Forest Service to figure out how you set aside enough so those small, niche industries who do high-value products like that, have enough and can be sustainable.”

And then there are plan dissenters. Organizations who want to put an end altogether to old-growth harvests.

I spoke with Larry Edwards, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace.

KCAW – I had a feeling the 5-million board feet was going to pose a problem for Greenpeace.
Edwards – It poses a problem for a lot of people, especially if you wind that out for the next 200 years as they’re planning. It just doesn’t cut it.

Edwards thinks this exclusion has undermined the plan.Greenpeace wants the Forest Service to consider other alternatives that don’t include old growth. And they’re not alone. Unlike Andrew Thoms of the Sitka Conservation Society, neither Greenpeace or the Sierra Club held seats on the Tongass Advisory Committee — a stakeholder group of conservation organizations and timber interests which was brought together to help shape the proposed plan.

“They got the committee they wanted, and it’s all aimed pretty much at getting the plan that they want, and basically shutting out public input and what would have been a real collaborative process if you had all the interest groups and a full range of perspectives represented there.”

The price, Edwards believes, will be litigation, if the Forest Service adopts the plan amendment as proposed.

And while that’s a potential legal hurdle for the plan, there’s also a political hurdle: Sen. Lisa Murkowski now chairs the senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has oversight of the Forest Service. The Ketchikan-raised senator has not weighed in yet on the new plan, but she’s on record as pro-timber.

I asked Tongass supervisor Earl Stewart if he felt his forest was developing a plan that was headed for trouble in Congress. Although he’s only been on the job for nine months, Stewart prefers to think practically, and hopes to put the plan to work.

“It’s really about taking this action and then figuring out how you would take it down from a strategic forest plan level to on-the-ground application.”

The Forest Service is taking comment on the proposed forest plan amendment through February 22, but there’s a catch: Comments must be substantive. Input like “We want more logging!” or “Save the Tongass!” will be discarded. The upside, though, is that any individual or organization that offers a well-researched and well-reasoned comment on the plan will have the right to formally object to the final decision in June, and the right — under the National Environmental Policy Act — to take the government to court.

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