A ranking U.S. Department of Agriculture official made his third trip to Alaska this week as the federal government prepares to transition the Tongass National Forest into its second-growth management plan. Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman was off to a busy start on Saturday, holding meetings with various entities that have stakes in the forest’s future.
Sherman said he came here to further educate himself about Alaska and is anxious to continue working with the state on this transition strategy. He said the USDA obviously has a keen interest in this area.
Sherman described the transition as a multi-level strategy that focuses on building and expanding the area’s tourism and recreational base as well as ocean products. He said the plan also includes working on renewable energy possibilities and stabilizing Alaska’s forest products.
Sherman said the are significant opportunities to work on these issues in the transition strategy across the approximately 600,000 acres in the Tongass that span across all land ownerships, be they state, federal or tribal.
A large part of the strategy involves whether there will be enough second-growth timber to sustain it. Sherman said he believes there are sufficient timber resources here to sustain a long-term industry under the transition.
Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said there could be harvests between 50 and 100 million board feet annually over the next century. He said harvest levels are currently around 35 million board feet.
Cole said the forest plan looks specifically at what the industry could sustain, and that this amount could produce a sustainable supply.
Another big issue Sherman will work with is the Tongass’ reinstatement of the Roadless Rule.
“We feel that the transition strategy can go forward successfully even though the Roadless Rule will be implemented,” said Sherman.
Sherman said that the rule allows for developments such as mining, renewable energy, small sales of commercial firewood and other industries. He said certain projects have been grandfathered in by the court but that the rule allows for new projects as well.
Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris, who met with Sherman, isn’t so sure the rule allows for the adequate developments. He said a problem is that while the rule allows for certain projects like the exploratory mining projects that were just approved on Admiralty Island and Prince of Wales Island, these projects aren’t enough.
“This seems to allow spending money on projects but it’s not about building roads to support the mining projects,” said Harris.
He said the inability to build roads to projects like the Niblack Mine but allowing exploratory drilling will prevent locals on Prince of Wales Island from capturing these jobs and will inhibit local goods and services.
He said Sealaska is also greatly concerned with allowing the communities in these isolated areas to connect with each other.
“The Obama administration recognizes the need to create jobs and it seems at this crucial juncture, the ability to sustain jobs are critical,” he said.
Sherman said the Roadless Rule can allow roads to be built if projects meet certain criteria under specific categories. He said that any road construction in inventoried roadless areas must be highly regulated.
He said the USDA has continued to have discussions with Sealaska on its prospective needs as well as the country’s.
Craig City Administrator Jon Bolling also expressed concerns about the Roadless Rule’s impact, saying he doesn’t see it as a benefit. He said the Craig City Council has a key interest in the ability to supply goods and services to mining projects if they go into production. He said there are no existing roads going into Niblack or a mine site at Bokan Mountain.
“It’s fair to say we don’t support application of the Roadless Rule to the Tongass,” Bolling said.
Sherman also commented on the Sealaska Lands Bill. He said that while it’s still too early to forecast the bill’s outcome, he said the department is focusing more on Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s bill. He said the USDA feels that bill has a more effective framework for the issues that are pending.
Another recent development the USDA faces for the Tongass is the recent petition filed by the Center of Biological Diversity and Greenpeace to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf for Endangered Species Act protection.
U.S. Forest Service Alaska Regional Forester Beth Pendleton said the Service is initiating discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Fish and Game to consider the petition. She said that it’s too early to speculate on it.
Sherman also met with the Juneau Economic Development Council while in town. He said JEDC has worked on the forest products aspect of the transition strategy.
Sherman will be stopping throughout the Southeast on his trip, including visits to Sitka and Ketchikan. This also includes a celebration on Craig for the restoration of the Harris River watershed.
Pendleton said this has been a long-term collaborative effort between the Forest Service, tribes and communities to improve the watershed and salmon fisheries.
“This is a culmination of a lot of years of effort and it deserves recognition,” Cole said.
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.