The Alaska Forest Association addressed the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday to discuss the direction the timber industry is taking.
Executive Director Owen Graham said Alaska’s timber business has taken a sharp drop and this is something that needs to be addressed.
Graham went through a brief history behind Southeast Alaska’s timber, saying it went well for more than 40 years before changes in the timber plan changed the whole game in the 1990s. He said the manufacturing capacity has declined from about 800 million board feet per year to 200 million with jobs dropping from 3,500 to 700.
He said logging particularly started declining after 1990 when the U.S. Forest Service reduced the amount of timber sales available and contract volumes dropped as the industry harvested more than what was sold.
“The primary concern I have is to restore our timber supply,” said Graham.
He went through what the AFA is trying to do in this goal as well as addressing issues the AFA cites as contributors to the decline. The factors he pointed out fall on the shoulders of the U.S. Forest Service.
“The Forest Service controls 94 percent of the land in Southeast Alaska so the supply has to come primarily from them,” he said.
He said the AFA is working to push the Forest Service to fully implement its timber allowance under the Tongass Land Management Plan and that there is a pending lawsuit to this effect.
“The plan they implemented in 2008 is almost identical to the one they did in 1997 and it has never worked,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, we’ll have to find a way to get the plan revised.”
Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said the service has been working diligently on the new management plan to reach a point of sustainable wood supply. This involves the transfer to young-growth plus collaboration with environmental communities and a cooperative approach with the state.
“We’re in that transition and doing everything we can, literally, to make a sustainable timber supply and provide room for expansion,” said Cole.
He said this differs from the 1997 plan, which was designed around keeping the Ketchikan Pulp Corp. and independent timber sale operators going. He said the larger company ran into difficulty operating after a previous administration reduced the sellable board feet amount. He noted pulp is having a difficult time making a profit.
The plan has been through several versions over the years, adjusting to lost contracts and litigation. Graham said that while timber contracts were terminated, most of the timber decline stemmed from harvesting timber at a greater rate than it was sold.
“Through a myriad of lawsuits and changes in administration, we have found it very difficult to sustain a supply of timber for the industry,” said Cole. He said the idea of the new plan is to provide enough young-growth to the industry until it matures enough to be profitable.
Graham said there are a few problems with the young-growth plan. One is that this only accounts for 1 percent of the Tongass with the old-growth scheduled for conversion to young-growth accounting for another 3 percent. He said there won’t be enough young-growth to sustain the industry. He also said it will take decades for the growth to mature enough to rate its viability.
Cole said young-growth on private lands and down south have shown it can be profitable.
Another concern Graham brought up was that he feels that the Forest Service has gotten distracted by stewardship projects, emphasizing road projects. He said that without timber contracts to pay for these roads, it falls to the taxpayers. He said focusing on revitalizing timber will allow those contracts to take care of this.
Cole said this can be a difficult choice when the road infrastructure has changed and there are no other funds for it.
“We’re trying to make our infrastructure match our capabilities,” he said.
Spokesman Dan Lesh of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said the state’s declining timber industry is much broader than Southeast Alaska politics, but deals with global economic changes. He said that at the same time, Southeast Alaska has a bright economic future but it won’t be “one size fits all,” meaning it must incorporate tourism, fishing and small-scale forestry projects.
“My basic message would be there is a shift going on globally and locally and there’s a chance creative entrepreneurs will create a viable timber industry and that will work with tourism and fisheries,” he said.
Lesh said there a number of small mills throughout Southeast that must be taken into account because they’re ready to innovate and add jobs with part of that being from second-growth and part from value-added old growth.
“Arguing about the past I think is a distraction from the work that needs to be done,” he said. “And we fully support the Tongass transition plan and think that has a lot of promise to lead the way but it will take work from all sides. We would be happy to work with AFA on sustainable timber issues if they want to work with us.”
Graham’s speech coincides with this week’s decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse and remand approval for four logging projects in the Tongass. The decision concerned further examination and clarification of the science concerning deer numbers. Graham said those sales are not economically feasible anyway but that the Forest Service can use this remanding to fix the economic problems with these at the same time they look at the wildlife issues.
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.