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Chris Maisch hoodwinks Congress about the Tongass

Posted: July 9, 2013 - 11:00pm

Alaska’s chief forester, Chris Maisch, should be fired and be held in contempt of Congress. Falsehoods were plentiful in his June 25 testimony to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, representing the state on Tongass National Forest issues..

He called these falsehoods “grim realities.” They mislead Congress, and their negativity harms the morale and economic reputation of Southeast Alaska.

Maisch introduced the Tongass as “the largest national forest …17 million acres of land.” Correct. But in noting merely that “not all of this” can be logged, he avoided informing senators that this land area is two-thirds glaciers, ice caps, rocky peaks, muskegs and scrubby trees. That’s nothing anyone would try to log, and not the prized forest habitats embroiled in controversy.

Had he disclosed that, his main point would have been silly: “the suitable timber base available for management has declined to only 672 thousand acres — or 4 percent of the Tongass acreage.” The comparison is absurd because the overwhelming portion of other 96 percent of the Tongass is the non-forest and unloggable landforms just described. Alaska’ chief forester must know better than the vision this created for senators.

More deceptively, he said, “Despite more than 50 years of timber harvest in the Tongass, a mere 2.5 percent of the old growth forest has been harvested.” That cons the Senate into believing the Tongass timber industry has had minuscule impact on forest habitat. If the existing 440,000 acres of Tongass clearcuts are really just “2.5 percent of the old growth,” doing the math, all the 17 million acres had to be old growth. Effectively, Maisch’s vision for senators is that there are no glaciers or unloggable terrains at all on the Tongass — just uninterrupted old-growth everywhere, of comparable quality to what has been logged.

Also deceptive: “The Tongass … is bigger than West Virginia, yet [that state has] 181 sawmills and 30,000 people employed.” West Virginia has far more commercial quality forest than the Tongass, and its climate grows trees faster. West Virginia’s industry is close to markets; Alaska’s is remote. Maisch’s incomplete comparison hoodwinked senators.

Maisch did a jobs shell-game. His testimony focused entirely on the Tongass, not mentioning other forest ownerships. Yet he claimed, “logging and wood products employment remains a mere shadow of its past, falling from 4,600 jobs in 1990 to approximately 307 logging jobs and 150 wood products manufacturing jobs in 2011.” In 1990 only 4,000 such jobs existed statewide. It was the peak year of Southeast Alaska’s logging boom, employing 3450. (Alaska Department of Labor). Over half the timber came from Native corporations rapidly liquidating their forests, not the Tongass. Maisch’s inaccuracy and comparison to an unsustainable high-water mark misdirected senators.

The current 457 jobs, too, are statewide. Under 100 jobs depend on Tongass timber, making this a good time for quickly transitioning out of Tongass old-growth logging. Magnifying the Tongass industry as four-plus times its actual size, Maisch avoided being confronted with that option. He asks the opposite — the ceding of 2 million acres of old-growth from the Tongass for logging — with contrived facts.

Maisch pointed to supposed steady decline in Southeast Alaska’s population and school enrollment. Population did decline 5 percent between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, but senators also need to know the State estimates the population has rebounded 3.8 percent since 2010.

Maisch said school enrollment has declined 15 percent, “sustained over nearly two decades” in 87 percent of communities. Broad decline lasted only from 2000 to 2006. Stability or growth have become commonplace since then. Analyzing State records, enrollment has been stable in nearly 60 percent of Southeast’s school districts for the last 3-10 years, and is increasing in nearly one-quarter.

He also claimed that since 1990 six schools closed and the Southeast Island School District’s (SISD) enrollment declined from 381 to 160 students. (Enrollment of under 10 causes closure; correspondence school is a fallback option.) Of those six, permanent closures in two tiny fishing villages (1997 and 1999) and in Hyder (2009) are irrelevant to logging issues. A fourth school closed only during 1996. The remaining two, in timber country, have cycled on/off for two decades. Maisch ignored SISD’s steady enrollment recovery since 2010, reaching 190 (not 160) this year.

Chris Maisch’s testimony was fundamentally false. If he believes what he said, he is not a competent public resources steward. If otherwise, he committed perjury. Either way he must go, and the State needs to retract his testimony!

Larry Edwards is a Greenpeace forest campaigner and 36-year Sitka resident.

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