A plan that could drastically change the timber industry in Southeast was announced today by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The plan outlines steps to be taken by the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to speed up the industry’s transition from a reliance on Tongass old-growth trees to second-growth trees.
A local conservation group hopes that the plan will pave the way for new second-growth markets to emerge. A local pro-development group is worried that second-growth markets have yet to be proven sustainable and profitable.
The plan is an extension of the Forest Service’s “Transition Framework” that was first proposed in May 2010. The framework sought to provide jobs and economic stability to Southeast via a forest management plan that would transition the region away from old-growth harvests and more toward second-growth harvests and management.
Announcement of the plan comes on the heels of the Forest Service’s decision to approve the Big Thorne sale. The sale allows the harvest of 148.9 million board feet of timber comprised of 6,186 acres of old-growth and 2,299 acres of second-growth.
In a press release, the USDA outlined six major points of the plan.
• Allocating Forest Service staff and financial resources to development of second growth sales.
• Developing a new work plan for the Tongass that includes a growing mix of second growth projects.
• Asking the Forest Service to consider an amendment to the Tongass National Forest land management plan that would speed the transition.
• Supporting research into second growth management and market development.
• Working with USDA’s Rural Development mission to facilitate retooling of the forest industry so that second growth timber can be harvested and processed economically.
• Approval for establishment of a Federal Advisory Committee to provide stakeholder input on the transition to second growth.
The third point listed would be aided by a newly added provision in the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act, also known as the bill that would allocate about 70,000 acres of land to Sealaska Corporation to complete its entitlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The bill recently moved through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.
The provision would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to approve the harvest of second-growth trees that would typically be considered too small.
The fifth point listed would enlist the USDA’s rural development division to offer consultation services and funding opportunities to aid in the transition away from old-growth harvests.
It’s those two points on which the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Southeast Conference have differing opinions.
There are parts of the USDA plan that SEACC supports. Forest Program Director Bob Claus said that the council applauds Vilsack for recognizing the need to move away from old-growth harvests.
“(This plan) would encourage new creative solutions and entrepreneurial energy to capture markets that we believe are there but are not being fully exploited right now,” Claus said.
Claus said the establishment of an advisory committee is also welcome because it formalizes relationships that the council has created with industry and government representatives.
In recent years, SEACC has supported smaller scale logging operations that harvest young-growth. That’s why Claus disagrees with the fifth point of the plan.
“We think that’s a way for the larger producers to have their capital costs subsidized by the federal government. Small businesses are already using second-growth products,” Claus said. “’Retooling’ in the past has meant a large influx of cash without the mill having to use their own resources as capital.”
Claus also takes issue with the plan’s intent to support further market research.
“It’s always good to have more information but we’ve been talking about second-growth for 50 years,” Claus said. “It’s good that (the research) will continue to be funded, but if that’s the main focus of this, I think we’re already there.”
Transitioning the Southeast timber industry toward second-growth timber is a recipe for disaster as far as Shelly Wright is concerned. Wright is the executive director for the Southeast Conference.
“We think it takes away from the value of the trees. If you start cutting smaller trees they’re less valuable,” Wright said. “We’re hoping that the government will hold off until we know more about what the market is for second-growth.”
Wright disagrees with Claus about there being enough information to support the transition. She said that the conference believes that second-growth needs to be a part of the picture, but that currently the infrastructure doesn’t exist in the region to make it viable as a main source of revenue. She said much of the second-growth harvest is being exported without being processed in Southeast.
“There are logging companies that are selling second-growth trees, but they’re being exported to Japan because we just don’t have the equipment to do the value added manufacturing,” Wright said.
Wright adds that it’s not clear yet how profitable an industry based on second-growth harvests would be and that’s why regional mills aren’t going to upgrade their equipment to process the smaller trees. Unless second-growth harvests can be processed locally on a large scale, Wright said that the USDA’s plan would devastate an already struggling industry.
“The timber industry would become an export industry, just like the fishing, mining and oil industries,” Wright said. “The harvesters would have no reason to sell to the mills. They would come and take our resources and go.”