Big changes are coming for the Tongass National Forest. Agency officials should seize the opportunity to make a clean break with their turbulent past, and do this as quickly as possible. Much good will come for all concerned by swiftly ceasing clearcut logging of old-growth forests.
I faced the same challenges as Siuslaw National Forest supervisor during the spotted owl crisis of the 1990s on the Oregon Coast. First, a federal judge enjoined logging of owl habitat, then a sweeping new management plan reduced timber harvesting by 95 percent.
We could have persisted in limited clearcutting of big trees and faced continued controversy at every turn. We voluntarily chose a radically different path and immediately focused all commercial and restoration logging on smaller trees in plantations from 1950s-era clearcuts. In doing so, we fashioned an enhanced, sustainable future.
The Siuslaw has been cutting about 40 million board feet a year ever since — reliably, sustainably and economically. And one more thing: There have been no timber appeals or lawsuits in the last 20 years. The similarities between the Tongass and the Siuslaw seem obvious to me — both the urgency of the current crisis, and the evident way forward.
In Oregon then, as in Alaska now, fear was everywhere and trust among parties was badly fractured. Uncertainty served no one. Swift, decisive action on the Tongass to fashion a new forestry model will help to provide surety and a new stability. On the Tongass, as elsewhere, the social contract to continue cutting old growth no longer exists. To suggest that this long-subsidized practice still enjoys legitimacy is untenable.
A recent independent analysis of the feasibility of transitioning to second-growth logging by a consulting firm (Mater LTD) used Forest Service data to demonstrate that pivoting away from old-growth logging can begin right now. I do not suggest that this transition will be easy, but it is essential to make the necessary changes as quickly as possible.
Alaska is blessed with forests that regenerate naturally and swiftly following timber harvest. Areas that were clearcut 55 years ago, circa Alaskan statehood, now have trees large enough to harvest commercially and process at area mills. And roads already exist, minimizing cost and lessening environmental consequences. Controversial logging of roadless areas is no longer necessary. These facts allowed Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to envision the end of old growth logging on the Tongass. That goal now drives the process to amend the forest management plan, and frames the outcome as one to be achieved “within 10-15 years.” Given the urgency, there’s nothing wrong with “Now!”
A sustainable timber industry doesn’t need old growth, but rather wood. The old clearcuts have grown sufficiently to provide an economic product for loggers and factories. Tongass forests absorb and store massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, helping to regulate Alaska’s climate. In addition, fisheries and destination tourism have far greater value to Alaska’s economy than logging, but both are diminished by clearcutting old growth. Finally, in seeking “balance,” for decades the scales have been tipped toward logging at great cost to environmentalist’s sensibilities, even though Alaska’s timber industry continues to founder. Clearly, balance should now favor protecting Tongass old growth. Give southeast Alaska’s timber industry essential support along with this reasonable challenge to craft a progressive future. They need and deserve help, but the day of handouts is over.
For my friends in the Forest Service, I ask that you set your eyes firmly on the future. I think generations hence will look on the legacy of the last 50 years with some sadness, perhaps even outrage. Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago rare qualities make the area one of the finest gems of our Earth. The extraction of wood, a common and cheap resource, should be done only with extreme care and attention to the greater values that lie at the heart of your service to the American people. Your applied land ethic should abound with evidence that reflects sensitivity to the greatness of the treasured Tongass National Forest.
• Jim Furnish is a former deputy chief of the Forest Service (1999-2002) and supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest (1992-1999).