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Don't turn back the clock on the Tongass

Posted: October 25, 2012 - 12:00am

The Parnell administration’s Timber Task Force recently unveiled a proposal to carve out two million acres of the Tongass National Forest for clear-cut logging under a state-managed “logging trust.” The stated goal is to revive Southeast Alaska’s timber industry that collapsed two decades ago amid changing market conditions, logging cutbacks and evolving public opinion about timber harvesting on national forests.

Trout Unlimited supports sustainable resource development. But any attempt to turn back the clock, roll back important protections for salmon streams, and return to the days of industrial-scale logging in the Tongass – home to one of the country’s healthiest and most productive salmon fisheries -- is a complete non-starter.

Rather than seeking a return to the days when timber and subsidies were king on the Tongass, with hundreds of millions of board feet logged annually at huge losses to taxpayers, the state should promote the existing fishing and tourism industries in Southeast Alaska that create huge economic returns for the region and require a healthy forest to sustain. One way to do that is to support the Tongass 77 campaign, an effort led by fishermen and supported by scientists that would require the Forest Service to manage the Tongass’ top 77 salmon-producing watersheds currently open to development for fish first. The Tongass 77 is about protecting fishing industry jobs and keeping watersheds intact for the visitor industry and local residents.

Salmon and trout are a billion dollar industry in Southeast Alaska and employ more than 7,200 people – about one in 10 residents. According to a recent McDowell Group report, the visitor industry also contributes nearly $1 billion to the Southeast Alaska economy and provides about 20 percent of overall employment.

This is not a question of pitting one industry against another. We can have a sustainable wood-products industry in the Tongass without sacrificing salmon-producing watersheds. We can do this without handing over 2 million acres of the Tongass to the state and supplanting important federal protections for salmon such as stream buffers with the inadequate state standards. The Forest Service should support Southeast Alaska’s small businesses and create a favorable climate for new wood products entrepreneurs to invest in the region by offering innovative stewardship contracts and small timber sales tailored to strike a careful balance between habitat conservation, forest restoration and some logging. As the Tongass moves into the 21st century, we should promote existing and emerging industries such as fishing and ocean products, visitor services, and renewable energy instead of sacrificing the region’s economic drivers to an ill-conceived 2 million acre give away.

If one ever doubts the economic contribution of fishing in the Tongass, one needs to look no further than at figures produced by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Gross earnings from commercial fishing in Southeast in 2009 totaled $173 million, according to ASMI. The seafood industry workforce in Southeast topped 10,150 that year. Southeast had more seafood-industry jobs in 2009 than any other area of the state, surpassing the Aleutians and Pribilofs which had a seafood work force of 5,309 in 2009. Even Bristol Bay, Southcentral and Kodiak trailed Southeast as far as seafood jobs.

Instead of futilely trying to re-create one industry at an unsustainable scale, state officials should regard the Tongass for what it really is – a salmon forest that employs thousands of fishermen and seafood processors, as well as provides jobs to guides, tourism operators, loggers and miners.

The Tongass 77 is a balanced approach to moving forward and giving Tongass wild salmon the status they deserve. This initiative would place 1.9 million acres of the Tongass – 77 of the highest-value salmon and trout watersheds currently open to development – into a fish-focused conservation status. This isn’t an environmental issue – it’s a jobs campaign. It’s about protecting an existing wild resource that contributes billions of dollars to the regional economy and sustains thousands of good-paying jobs. To learn more about this proposal and how you can support the Tongass 77, visit www.americansalmonforest.org.

• Williams is the Alaska Forest Program manager for Trout Unlimited.

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