Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
recently announced that the U.S. Forest Service will amend the Tongass Land Management Plan, also called the Forest Plan, the document that guides the work we do as an agency on the Tongass National Forest. After extensive public meetings and comments last year, the Forest Service determined that an amendment to the Forest Plan is needed to accomplish the transition within the next 10 to 15 years to a timber sale program on the Tongass that is based primarily on young-growth management while maintaining a viable timber industry.
Timber harvest has played a significant economic and cultural role in Southeast Alaska for generations and will continue to do so. The long-term viability of the timber industry in the region, however, requires a more rapid shift to young-growth-based forest management than the current 2008 Forest Plan considers. In fact, nearly half of the existing young-growth timber stands reside in Land Use Designations, or LUDs, where our ability to economically offer timber is limited.
The amendment process will involve consideration of the following:
• Identifying areas that are suitable and not suitable for timber harvest to support the transition to young growth management;
• Whether the Tongass needs to be able to harvest young growth forest stands before they reach their maximum rate of growth;
• What changes in management direction should be made to promote young growth management;
• Whether the inventory of roadless areas should be updated, which may require additional rulemaking;
• Whether changes are needed to provide for development of hydropower;
• Updating the upper limit on the quantity of timber that may be sold from the Tongass to reflect other changes made; and,
• How to modify the monitoring provisions of the Plan as required by the 2012 Planning Rule, including identifying focal species to monitor instead of management indicator species as required by the former planning regulations.
The amendment process is not expected to affect the integrity of the Forest Plan’s conservation strategy, which is designed to maintain viable and well-distributed populations of old-growth-associated species and provide other multiple public uses.
Secretary Vilsack recently announced the 15 members of the Tongass Advisory Committee (TAC), a federal advisory committee comprised of individuals who represent Alaska Native and conservation communities, the timber industry, government and other forest users who have a vested interest in the health and productivity of the 17 million acres of public lands that comprise the Tongass. The TAC will offer recommendations on ways to expedite the transition from old-growth to young-growth harvest on the Tongass, which may include input to the Forest Plan amendment.
While we are asking that the TAC focus on the transition to young growth, there will be opportunities, such as formal consultations with Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations, public meetings, workshops, subsistence hearings, and open comment periods, for all stakeholders and community members to share their input and ensure a collaborative, transparent amendment process from start to finish. The process from this point forward is expected to take two years, with a newly amended Forest Plan in place in August 2016. Members of the public are invited to follow the process online, where we will continually post updated information at www.fs.usda.gov/land/tongass/landmanagement.
I want to emphasize that the Forest Service looks forward to input and advice from the collaborative Tongass Advisory Committee throughout the amendment process. A high level of engagement and dialogue will undoubtedly lead to better ways of achieving a successful transition to young-growth management on the Tongass, for the good of our communities, our economy and our forest in Southeast Alaska.
Beth Pendleton is the Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region in Juneau.