Wrangling over Tongass timber's future continues

Posted: Tuesday, January 04, 2000

2000 is shaping up as another year of modest logging activity in the Tongass National Forest.

But politically, there will be many buzz saws running all year.

As the 1990s came to a close, the Southeast timber industry was still very much in transition, following the end of long-term logging contracts and the closure of major pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka.

A timber harvest of approximately 145 million board feet in 1999 amounted to ``a little bit of a rebound,'' said Jack Phelps, executive director of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association. That amount - enough wood to build about 14,500 average-sized three-bedroom homes - is the most harvested since 1995.

In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service is tentatively looking at 43 offerings amounting to a potential harvest of 155 million board feet.

But Phelps worries that fewer offerings will actually take place. He's concerned that U.S. Forest Service resources could become diverted from timber sales, as environmental studies get under way on a proposed ban on new roads in pristine parts of national forests.

To that, Forest Service spokeswoman Pamela Finney said, ``Absolutely not.''

Meanwhile, environmentalists are concerned that the Forest Service will be making new timber offerings in roadless areas of the Tongass, even while the federal review is under way on whether to include the Southeast forest in a road-building ban.

There is no interim protection for roadless areas of the Tongass, and about half of the acreage in planned offerings this year is in areas currently inventoried as roadless, said Bill Wilson, assistant director of forest management for the Forest Service.

The industry and environmentalists see recent developments as a mixed bag, albeit from diametrically opposed perspectives.

In positive news for the industry, Gateway Forest Products broke ground on a new veneer plant in Ward Cove, near Ketchikan, after closing a deal with Louisiana-Pacific Corp. to buy the assets of the Ketchikan Pulp Co.

In positive news for environmentalists, revisions to the federal Tongass Land Management Plan in 1999 increased the amount of old growth forest protected from development to 234,000 acres, up by 100,000, and reduced the annual allowable sale quantity from 267 million board feet to 187 million.

Phelps said those decisions threaten Southeast's timber industry.

AFA filed suit to block the revisions and has been joined by several municipalities, as well as by the Southeast Conference and Concerned Alaskans for Resources and Environment.

If the Tongass is included in the final roadless plan, no more than one of five lumber mills in Southeast could survive, Phelps said. Now there are 576,000 acres open to logging, but that would be reduced to 187,000 with permanent protection for roadless areas, he said.

Finney of the Forest Service said such numbers are at best speculative, especially as further refinement of the definition of ``roadless'' is possible as the year progresses.

An environmental impact statement is scheduled for completion in December, a month before Clinton leaves office.

Phelps said he foresees continued skirmishes with the environmentalists in the meantime.

The next flash point could be a proposed sale of 23.6 million board feet at Indian River, near Tenakee Springs on Chichagof Island. Two or more sales are planned, with harvesting in 2001 and beyond. The deadline for an administrative appeal is Feb. 2.

``I fully expect Indian River to be heavily contested by the environmental community, up to and including a lawsuit,'' Phelps said. ``Every EIS now has become exceptionally important to us. We can't afford to blow any of them off, like we used to.''

J.C. Wisenbaugh of Tenakee Springs said Tenakee residents were ``not wildly enthusiastic'' about the sales.

``There'll be a lot of noise; there'll be a lot of disruption of the trail. ... We're considering appealing it,'' said Wisenbaugh, who is also a board member of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Another battleground could be Finger Mountain, across Tenakee Inlet from Tenakee Springs. A sale of 21 million board feet is proposed in a draft EIS.

SEACC spokesman Tim Bristol of Juneau said the group favors more ``micro sales'' of around 200,000 board feet, to spread out the impacts. Although the industry pushes for more Tongass timber to be offered for sale, it doesn't buy most of what is offered, Bristol said.

But Phelps said that's because the Forest Service has sale-design problems that make some projects unprofitable, due to access issues and various logging restrictions.

``You get less timber out of each area, and you end up building more road,'' Phelps said.

Bristol said the industry faces ``more growing pains.''

``There's going to have to be a very different way of doing business,'' he said.

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