Forest Service announces final decision on Tongass old-growth logging phaseout

A Tongass National Forest clearcut is shown in this 2014 aerial view. A new court decision limits logging on roadless areas of the forest. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

A Tongass National Forest clear-cut is visible in this aerial photo taken in 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The U.S. Forest Service on Friday announced a final decision on amending the Tongass Land Management Plan to transition toward second-growth harvest within 16 years.

The decision comes about five months after the draft decision was announced this summer.

There were some corrections, definitions and clarifications, but the main points remain the same. During the 16-year transition, the U.S. Forest Service will offer an average of 46 million board feet of timber on the Tongass National Forest per year.

For the first decade, that will include almost three times more old-growth logging than second-growth. In years 11 to 15, the ratio will flip, allowing more young growth harvest and limiting old growth.

By year 16, timber stands offered for logging will be about 90 percent young growth, with 5 million board feet of old growth for specialty products.

The main objection from some environmental groups is that the transition isn’t happening fast enough – they want to move away from old-growth logging within the next five years. Logging industry representatives, though, say the switch is too fast. They think the full transition should be closer to 30 years.

Earl Stewart will become the top official at the Tongass national Forest in May. (Courtesy USFS)

Earl Stewart is the Tongass National Forest supervisor. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

In a Friday teleconference announcing his decision, Tongass Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart said objections were noted and considered, and the Forest Service chose to stick with a plan endorsed by the Tongass Advisory Committee, a group made up of representatives from conservation, logging and Alaska Native organizations.

He acknowledged that there will be a change of administration when President-elect Donald Trump assumes office. But, he notes that the Forest Service’s mission remains the same. Stewart read from a prepared statement:

“While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a transition team in place to work with the new administration, our employees will continue on our mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the national forest and grassland to meet the needs of present and future generations,” he read. “Beyond that, I’m not able to or going to speculate further.”

There had been calls to delay the final decision until after the new administration assumes office and provides direction. However, Stewart says the Forest Service doesn’t base decisions on what might happen.

“And so, the team was working very deliberatively to work through the process they had in front of them,” he said. “Concurrently, anything that was directed by federal law, we would have followed completely.”

The amendment to phase out old-growth logging has been in the works since 2014. It takes effect in 30 days.

Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the ratio of old-growth to young-growth logging that will be offered at the end of the transition period. The Tongass plan amendment calls for about 5 million board feet of old growth to be offered each year, about 11 percent of the total board feet offered.

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