My turn: Alaskans need to recognize the costs of Tongass biofuel

Posted: Sunday, January 10, 2010

In recent months, the Anchorage Daily News and other regional publications have produced editorials and articles highlighting proposals promising a revitalized timber industry on the Tongass National Forest .

The recent ADN editorial "Tongass Truce?" features one such initiative being promoted by The Wilderness Society and Seley Corporation's Pacific Log and Lumber. A key component of this and other proposals involve converting trees to fuel. As the ADN editorial acknowledged, some other conservation groups do not agree with the idea of burning trees for fuel and Tongass Conservation Society is among them.

TCS hopes that the Anchorage Daily News and other regional media will evaluate the assertions made by those who promote the fuel-wood industry with greater care and an eye toward the public interest. Editorial boards should be aware of both the economic and environmental risks in the fuel-wood industry and inform the public of the hidden costs.

We do want the Forest Service to repair damage done by decades of clearcut logging. But attempting to help finance it through a fuel-wood industry would require a substantial federal investment, and is unlikely to deliver the promised environmental and economic benefits.

Our first concern with a program built around fuel-wood is the environmental cost - especially in light of the role forests (particularly the Tongass, because it is a coastal rainforest) play in climate change mitigation. The media needs to inquire as to why the public should finance shifting to yet another combustible fuel source.

The Boston Globe has done so, and pointed out in an Nov. 28 editorial that scientists are viewing the so-called carbon neutrality of biomass operations with considerable skepticism. This is in large part because forests remove carbon dioxide from the air, while logging and burning trees interrupts the uptake and storage of carbon dioxide in soil and wood and adds carbon dioxide to the air.

People have begun to recognize that the best use of our forests is as removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests are the lungs of our planet. The Boston Globe editorial concluded, "Massachusetts should make sure that supposedly renewable energy sources don't make a climate problem worse" Now Massachusetts is reconsidering its previous plans to develop wood energy.

Our second concern is a failure to accurately characterize timber economics on the Tongass. A fuel-wood or second growth timber industry is likely to be yet another "Bridge to Nowhere." It is misleading too to characterize the closure of a Ketchikan mill as a "casualty of the Tongass timber wars." The mill is a casualty of economic reality. A number of factors make it difficult for the Tongass timber industry to compete with other regional west coast and global producers.

Consequently, timber on the Tongass has never been a self-supporting industry. Millions of dollars worth of public funds have been spent building roads in an ongoing effort to keep Pacific Log and Lumber and the other large Southeast Alaska mill in the clearcut business. Millions more are spent administering the timber sale program; an amount far out of proportion to declining program revenues. The public investment in a conversion to so-called "low-impact logging" would likely be staggering and even with millions in retooling dollars, the mill would not be saved.

The U.S. Forest Service and its collaborative partners on the Tongass Futures Roundtable need to step back from the idea that timber development can finance restoration. Projects need careful prioritization with uses in mind that advance Southeast Alaska's real economic future - fishing, real renewable energy development, tourism and subsistence.

Spending money to subsidize fuel-wood industry development means less money being spent on thinning projects more narrowly designed to benefit wildlife and create other economic opportunities. Countless miles of salmon streams remain or are rendered inaccessible or inhospitable to fish because of deferred road maintenance and road decommissioning. Forest Service cabins are closed, recreation positions are understaffed and visitor fees increase as services are curtailed.

TCS hopes that editorial boards everywhere will scrutinize these issues more thoroughly in considering timber industry initiatives proposed for the Tongass.

• Carol Cairnes is president of the Tongass Conservation Society.

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