The U.S. Forest Service released a new 10-year land use management plan for the Tongass National Forest on Friday morning.
In a new approach, some acres will be open to harvest now, while others, particularly those in biologically sensitive areas, could be harvested later if the timber industry grows.
While some environmentalists criticized the new plan, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council gave it cautious praise. An Alaska Forestry Association representative had not had time to review the plan but was worried about what he called "starvation levels" of logging.
A 79-page record of decision summarizes a fully detailed final environmental impact statement, which will be posted in early February.
This plan amends one from 1997, which was contested in a lawsuit brought by a New York-based environmental group. A federal court ruled that the Forest Service had included too many roadless areas, overestimated the market's demand for timber by 100 percent and failed to analyze the cumulative effects of logging.
In the former plan, any areas acceptable for logging were considered immediately open for timber sales.
The new plan opens 3.4 million acres for development, about a third of which are currently roadless.
Amending the 1997 plan has been "complex and contentious," the Forest Service wrote in the record of decision. The agency has a statutory requirement to sell timber - which itself is contentious. But it must balance that with all the other uses of the forest: outdoor recreation, range, watershed, wildlife, fish and wilderness.
Ray Massey, spokesman for the Alaska region of the Forest Service, said a lot of sales in the past didn't turn into harvests. This plan doesn't mark an increase for the agency's budget or staff, and it won't be able to prepare any more timber sales than before.
"But they'll be set up in some way that there won't be as much opposition," he said. "And they'll be more economical."
The upper limit to the timber harvest has not changed. That is 2.67 billion board feet over the next decade, or 267 million board feet per year.
That upper limit is far from what has been harvested in the past.
According to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group, about 50 million board feet were harvested from the Tongass last year. But another report provided by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said that number was only 19 million board feet.
Either way, it's far less than in the old boom days. A few small mills remain in towns such as Ketchikan and Wrangell. But the big timber industry largely died with the two big pulp mills in the 1990s.
The biggest timber industry group in the area, the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forestry Association, wasn't expected to like the plan.
Executive Director Owen Graham, out traveling on Friday, said he hadn't gotten a chance to review it yet. But he knew the new plan did not offer substantially more timber any time soon.
He characterized the recent level of timber sales as "starvation levels" and said the forestry association would file an appeal if necessary.
"We don't object to having protections for fish and wildlife," he said. "But if you have more than necessary, it raises the cost of logging."
Despite his pessimism about the plan, Graham said he sees potential in the timber market. Prices have been high enough in the last few years to potentially support Alaska logging, he said, particularly for cedar, hemlock shop lumber and spruce.
Others, such as environmental activist Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, see Southeast's timber as prohibitively expensive. Without a pulp mill, logs have a long way to travel to wherever they're getting processed. And overseas loggers have poured cheaper wood into markets.
The New York-headquartered Natural Resources Defense Council, which originally brought the suit that killed the 1997 plan, found nothing good in Friday's news.
"The Forest Service had a chance today to keep the forest the magnificent world-class resource that it is. And it passed that chance up," said Niel Lawrence, an Olympia, Wash.-based director of the group's forestry project.
Lawrence said several areas of special interest would be open in the first phase of the plan: for example, the North Kuiu wilderness area; El Capitan roadless area on Prince of Wales Island; and Gravina Island, west of Ketchikan.
"There are literally dozens of other such roadless areas," he said.
The Tongass Conservation Society, a local group, similarly panned the plan.
"Southeast Alaska has moved beyond the kind of massive and destructive timber industry this plan envisions," Director Gregory Vickrey said.
But the biggest local environmental group, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, gave a cautious thumbs up to the plan.
"This decision does not fix all the problems with Tongass management," said Lindekugel, SEACC's conservation director and staff attorney. "People need the forest for a whole variety of uses that aren't really reflected in this plan. But it gives us some breathing room for some communities to find long-term solutions."
The record of decision and new Tongass maps are available online at http://tongass-fpadjust.net/FPA_ROD.htm.