The U.S. Forest Service announced its plan for a 16-year transition toward young-growth Tongass timber harvests in late June. In the midst of the 60-day comment period, industry and environmental groups are starting to submit their objections.
Both the industry and environmental groups on either side of the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment can agree on one thing: the Forest Service needs to complete a full inventory of young-growth Tongass timber.
But their reasons are fundamentally different.
“We have really been working hard to try to show the Forest Service that there is a quick exit out of old-growth logging on the Tongass,” said Geos Institute chief scientist Dominick DellaSalla.
“Our biggest concern is that we don’t believe that the young growth is big enough right now, nor is there enough acreage of young growth to support a small-log mill,” Owen Gram of the Alaska Forest Association.
Both agree that an inventory of the Tongass’ young growth needs to be completed to better inform the Forest Service’s transition to young-growth timber sales. The management plan amendment does allow some old-growth harvests for specialty products.
DellaSalla has formally submitted an objection to the amendment. He said the institute’s assessments concluded there’s enough young growth to complete the transition in nine years. He said the Tongass could supply 50 million board feet per year in four years.
“You’ve got enough young growth that is going to be a wall of wood by 2020 and you can avoid a wall of litigation by continued old-growth logging. But, unfortunately the agency is slow-walking the transition,” said DellaSalla.
He said by 2025, that number will grow to 95 million board feet per year. The Forest Service plans to offer about half of that projection at the end of its 16-year transition.
The Forest Association is working on an objection. Gram said the amendment won’t allow Southeast timber mills to be competitive with mills in Oregon and Washington that process young growth.
“The sawmill people tell me that the only thing they can produce is the lowest grade of commodity lumber, construction-grade lumber,” said Gram. “And, there’s tons of that being produced down in the Pacific Northwest right now out of young growth logs, and they are 800 miles closer to the market place then we are, so we’re at a big disadvantage.”
Gram said it would take about 350 million board feet to sustain the Southeast timber industry.
He said mills have traditionally gravitated towards old-growth timber because it can be used to produce several different high-quality products, offsetting transportation costs. Gram acknowledges a transition is necessary, but wants to hold off another 30 years.
“You know, I think we would convert over to 100 percent second growth once the trees are mature. That’s always been the plan,” said Gram.
Gram said waiting until young growth stands are about 90 years old, instead of the 60-year benchmark, will allow mills to produce several products and boost volume, making Southeast mills competitive.
DellaSalla said the Geos Institute approached the Forest Service earlier this year about a pilot project that could solve that problem. It would test new saw technology on smaller logs.
“This would have been implemented on Prince of Wales Island at the Dargon point sales – would have been process or at least scanned with new technology that would have at least started the process of how can you process these smaller logs on the Tongass and get profit out of them,” said DellaSalla.
He said Good Faith Lumber in Craig was interested in the project, on the northwest part of the island, but the Forest Service turned it down.
The final Record of Decision is expected before the end of the year. The objection period ends Aug. 29.
Several calls to Tongass Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart were not returned in time for this report. The environmental firm Earth Justice expects other groups to file objections.