A regional economic development organization is proposing a new long-term strategy to manage the Tongass National Forest. The Southeast Conference says that the forest should become a “net contributor to the nation’s treasury.”
Shelly Wright is the executive director for the Southeast Conference. Wright said the Tongass should be better managed and utilized to not only sustain small Southeast economies, but to also save tax dollars spent on restoration and stewardship programs.
“First and foremost, the current plan that’s being used on the Tongass is not working,” Wright said. “The forest service paid $77 million in taxes on the Tongass.”
The five-year plan for the Tongass is currently being rewritten. A forest plan determination from the U.S. Forest Service is expected by the end of September. Wright said the Southeast Conference submitted its plan during the public comment period.
“We feel like this management strategy is a viable alternative to what is happening right now,” Wright said. “We’re hoping to get people to sit down and really take a look at it. We’re not asking to mow down the forest. We’re not looking to go back to the way it was. We’re asking people to take a look at it in a new way, a better way.”
In the Southeast Conference’s proposed plan, protected areas such as national monuments and designated wilderness areas would remain, as would buffer zones near bodies of water.
The plan would “lump all the available lands into a single land base” that could be managed depending on the resource goals for that area. In a management strategy document, the Southeast Conference says the current Forest Service management plan treats sections of land “as if it is a stagnant, stand-alone piece of ground.”
“We feel like it’ll be a better way all around. Better for fish, better for the forest, and better for the economy,” Wright said. “I’ve looked at this. I’ve studied this. It really makes sense to me to manage the forest as a living, breathing organism.”
Before 2000, when the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was passed, 25 percent of logging revenues derived from National Forests were paid to states. The states were required to spend that money on public schools and roads in the communities where the logging took place. As federal timber sales sharply declined in the 90s, so did the revenue to logging communities. Lawmakers passed the Secure Rural Schools Act as a way to stabilize education and road maintenance funding and to create jobs “associated with restoration, maintenance, and stewardship of Federal lands.”
Last week the House passed the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which would reform the Secure Rural Schools program. Payments to communities under the program expired at the end of fiscal year 2012. The act would temporarily extend those payments, though they may be reduced because of sequestration.
Reviving the logging industry in Southeast could do away with the Secure Rural Schools program, Wright said.
“Now it’s treated as an entitlement and it shouldn’t be an entitlement,” Wright said. “We should go back to where the forest sustains the communities, the forest pays royalties and stumpage fees, rather than the entitlement of the Secure Rural Schools.
“I think it’s really important that people know that we’re not wanting to go back to the glory of the timber days. We are wanting to sustain the forest for all uses of its inhabitants,” Wright said. “We understand that you can’t cut it all down, but we could have self sustaining economies.”