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My Turn: Restoration money put to waste

Posted: September 5, 2011 - 12:02am

In early 2008, the Wilderness Society sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to order the Forest Service to stop old-growth harvesting in Southeast Alaska and to begin restoring old-growth conditions in our young-growth stands. A few months later the agency announced their new plan to transition into young-growth harvesting over the next five to 10 years and to replace timber industry jobs with “restoration” jobs. This won’t work.

Our young-growth stands in Southeast will not be mature or economically viable for 40-years. The Forest Service already knows this; they performed the first silvicultural studies in Alaska in the 1930s and have reaffirmed the growth projections repeatedly over the last 80 years. The oldest young-growth stands are currently too small to be profitably harvested and sawn into lumber. Further, there are too few acres of young-growth timber to sustain an industry, even when the trees are finally mature. We need to continue harvesting old-growth timber and intensively managing the new growth until sufficient young-growth is mature and economically viable.

The Harris River Restoration Project is a good example of taxpayer dollars being wasted on a phony stream restoration project. The agency, with help from environmental groups, has been rooting around in these rivers allegedly to stop logging related erosion and restore fish habitat. The truth — the sedimentation in the river is natural. Large amounts of sediment have been washing out of the surrounding hillsides since the last ice-age. There was a series of small landslides about 10-years ago that began in the old-growth timber above the areas that were logged in the late 1950s. The roads in the area intercepted most of the debris, but some did end up in the streams. Those slides, like the ongoing sedimentation are natural. The salmon returns in the Harris River system have doubled since the 1950s, so where is the need for “restoration”? Portions of the stream bank were rip rapped, but stream bank erosion is also natural — streams and rivers have been meandering back and forth for eons. Some assert that the current Harris River project will restore Coho and Steelhead habitat that was lost in the 1950s when the State and Forest Service, in an effort to increase pink salmon habitat, directed the removal of some large trees from the streams. The Forest Service may succeed in restoring the previous habitat conditions, but that doesn’t mean more or better fish habitat, it is a species manipulation project and it is unfair and untrue to assert that these projects are to correct past logging practices

The Forest Service says that another element of their new economy will be thinning the older young-growth stands to restore old-growth conditions. What happens to the “old-growth conditions” when the young-growth stands are mature? Will timber harvest be precluded? So far, the commercial thinning projects have cost about $5,500 per acre and the value of the timber recovered is far less than the cost of thinning. With more than 400,000 acres of young-growth on the Tongass, sustaining this effort would cost around $2 billion and return very little useable fiber.

These projects do not represent a viable economy. The projects are not sustainable and they will not result in the creation of new wealth so the projects will have to rely on government funding.

This politically motivated strategy to transition to a “restoration” economy based on taxpayer-funded projects and premature harvest of young-growth timber is not the answer for the economy of Southeast Alaska. Restoration of a viable timber sale program is.

• Woodbury lives in Wrangell.

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