Tongass National Forest officials said Monday they intend no major changes to the forest's 15-year plan despite intense pressure in Southeast Alaska to either restrict or increase timber sales in the 17-million acre forest.
The announcement came shortly after Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forest Cole completed his required five-year review of the Tongass 1997 land and resource management plan. The review was conducted internally for about a year.
Juneau environmentalists said Monday that the belated five-year review should have solicited input from Southeast communities and should have included scrutiny by external scientific experts.
Their main complaint, however, was that the five-year-review didn't call for a major revision to the Tongass timber sale program.
"The current plan is based on a gross over-estimate of (timber) market demand. It's been offering way too much timber for sale," said Tom Waldo, a Juneau attorney for Earthjustice, which is suing the Forest Service over the 1997 plan's timber market demand projections.
Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill said public involvement and external review weren't necessary. "This is basically the forest supervisor's review," he said.
While Neill conceded that the Tongass made an error in calculating timber demand in 1997, he said it wasn't a significant error because, even when the higher, incorrect calculation is used, market demand is less than the forest's maximum harvest level of 267 million board feet per year. The latter number, called the allowable sales quantity, is based on the Forest Service's measure of the forest's biological capacity for timber harvests.
Forest Service officials now project market demand for Tongass timber at 50 million board feet per year. That level hasn't been achieved under the 1997 plan, which saw its highest harvest in 2000 with 147 million board feet.
While environmental groups believe the projected market demand for Tongass timber should reflect more recent logging levels (between 40 million and 50 million board feet per year since 1991), the Alaska Forest Association based in Ketchikan feels the Tongass is low-balling its market demand estimates.
"What drives everybody in industry crazy is that number is based on what you logged last year, with a few other variables thrown in," said Owen Graham, executive director of the forest association. He said Southeast Alaska's timber mills would rather operate at their combined annual capacity - about 200 million board feet.
The first Tongass land management plan - which also contained planning provisions for tourism, subsistence use and hunting and fishing - was published in 1979. It was intended as a 15-year document but wasn't fully revised until 1997. Subsequent lawsuits resulted in revisions in 1999.
Controversy over the forest plan is likely to heat up again in February.
The Earthjustice law firm and the Forest Service are scheduled to argue in Seattle's 9th District Court of Appeals on Feb. 15 whether Forest Service employees should be forced to revise the forest plan due to the timber market demand miscalculation.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.