My Turn: New Tongass management can help Southeast economy

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The U.S. Forest Service has announced a new, more sustainable management vision for the Tongass National Forest, and that has some people in Southeast Alaska worried. Will this change harm the region’s economy, which is already struggling? The Wilderness Society’s Alaska office decided to look at this question, and the answer we found is reassuring. There is a way forward that helps the economy while better protecting the region’s irreplaceable old-growth forests.

As officially announced last May, the Forest Service pledged to quickly shift away from old growth logging in the Tongass and emphasize the development of renewable energy, subsistence activities, fisheries, and second growth timber. In the meantime, as second growth matures, the Forest Service will expand efforts to restore areas that were damaged in past decades by aggressive clear-cutting.

This combination — ramping up restoration work and preparing second growth for future harvest — can maintain today’s level of jobs and economic impact from the Tongass timber program. At the same time, this new, more sustainable management produces benefits that don’t show up in the economic ledger.

From 2001-2008, the Tongass National Forest spent $32 million taxpayer dollars a year on the timber sale program and building roads to access the timber. The agency took in less than $1 million a year from timber sales, for an average annual subsidy of $31 million a year. Our analysis illustrates that similar regional economic benefits can be created if this annual timber budget is spent on restoring damaged streams and forest areas and preparing second growth for future harvest. Comparing this scenario to the most recent years’ timber harvests (2007-2009), we found that spending the timber sale budget on restoration and stewardship of second growth would create greater economic output and more jobs. Retooling an industry for this type of work would spur further regional economic benefits.

Rapidly transitioning out of old growth harvests would also curtail the continuing degradation of salmon habitat, protect critical wintering habitat for deer, and avoid releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) stored in these giant trees. These avoided costs, combined with the benefits of restoring degraded watersheds, would help enhance other economic sectors that depend on a healthy Tongass National Forest such as subsistence gathering, commercial fishing, sport fishing and hunting, recreation, and tourism. Continuing to compromise these main regional industries in hopes of preserving a logging industry that supports less than 1 percent of regional employment is a risky proposition.

Our analysis shows that old-growth clear-cutting in the Tongass is not essential to maintain jobs and the economic health of Southeast Alaska. A rapid transition can spur greater economic benefits and would also be a better way to retain existing infrastructure and skills.

The current slow pace of transition has not helped regional mill owners, as the decade’s second largest mill on the Tongass, Pacific Log and Lumber, has shut its doors. That the owner of Pacific Log and Lumber was interested in transitioning to restoration work and processing of small diameter second growth is telling. With more contracts for restoration and preparing second growth, the second largest mill on the Tongass might still be employing Southeast residents in the woods and in the mills.

There’s room to debate how fast the Forest Service should phase out of old-growth logging as part of this move to more sustainable management. But there’s no debating that the sooner the Forest Service offers restoration and second growth projects, the more we’ll all know about the benefits this new approach can provide to our communities and the ecosystem. We urge the Forest Service to offer and implement more and larger restoration projects. Taking 30 years to finish cutting the remaining available old growth, while holding out hope for federal timber bailouts, will keep the region and the industry in an uphill battle. The faster the agency makes this transition in the Tongass, the stronger the region’s economy and wood products industry will be.

• Hjerpe is a resource economist for The Wilderness Society.

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