My Turn: The way forward for young growth in the Tongass

This week, we are releasing a “Leader’s Intent” document, explicitly outlining our vision and goals for the future young growth timber program on the Tongass National Forest. In doing so, we are inviting dialogue and participation as we develop a long-term strategy for the timber transition. While some conflict around timber harvest endures, we believe that the common ground so elusive in the past is now on the horizon.

The Forest Service is committed to a forest management program that conserves the forest’s rich resources while supporting local community economies. The vision we outline includes a future forest industry supported mainly by young growth harvest. Old growth timber harvest would be much less than today, supporting a small program for the specialty mill owners who make products such as wood for instruments and housing shingles. Overall, we would have an integrated program that also includes restoration treatments and thinning.

Getting from where we are today to a fully functioning young growth timber program will not happen tomorrow, nor will it be easy. Most young growth is simply too young for commercial timber harvest — biologically, it is too small for an operator to make a profit. Further, young growth that is large enough for commercial harvest is scattered across the Forest, making harvest prohibitively expensive and logistically problematic. There is simply not enough young growth available today to support a viable timber industry.

We firmly believe that a gradual, rather than abrupt, shift is vital to keep jobs in Southeast Alaska and sustain local communities. We also believe that a thriving young growth timber program in the future is only possible with a vibrant timber industry today. Elsewhere in the country, communities have seen the timber industry and its associated economic support fade as milling infrastructure disappeared. Retaining the existing logging and milling infrastructure in Southeast Alaska, and therefore the old-growth timber program, is essential until enough young growth forest is available for harvest. In the meantime, we need to offer profitable young growth sales as they become available to begin the transition.

To some, the fact that our program of work includes large old growth timber sales like Big Thorne and Wrangell Island is seen as business as usual. We disagree. Faced with the current reality — there is insufficient young growth of needed size and acres to support the current forest products industry — our path forward includes continued harvest of old growth in the near term. But that does not mean we are sitting idly by, waiting for trees to grow.

We have worked on a young growth inventory, invested with our Forest Service research partners in the science of young growth management, and sold several small young growth sales in the past year with more planned. We are also coordinating with other landowners in the region to collectively offer a steady supply of timber now and into the future. And programs like our “Community Capacity and Land Stewardship (CCLS)” grant have allowed organizations in the region to provide assistance and capacity building programs to communities like Wrangell and Kake.

While several pieces of a successful transition are in place, we recognize that a coherent and broadly supported strategy will be critical to seeing it through. We know we do not have all of the answers and that we cannot succeed alone: a collaborative approach to developing this strategy will provide the best chance at success. We have charted the path outlined above based on our purview as National Forest land managers. That said, creativity, innovation, and risk can change this trajectory, and is best brought forward by our partners and stakeholders.

Ultimately, we are committed to the continued health and sustainability of communities in the region, and the role active management of the forest plays in their stability. Our way of life in Southeast Alaska is dependent on a healthy forest. This truism is our guiding principle and one we have in common with every other stakeholder in this region. With this starting point, we look forward to moving forward together.

• Pendleton is regional forester with the Alaska Region Forest Service based in Juneau. Cole is the forest supervisor of Tongass National Forest and is based in Ketchikan. The authors are the U.S. Forest Service leadership for the Alaska region and the Tongass National Forest, respectively.

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