Various users brainstorm on Tongass forest plans

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008

As passionately as loggers and conservationists have fought each other in the past, this week they sat down together and cordially discussed Southeast Alaska issues including and beyond the timber supply.

They came together for a two-day Tongass Futures Roundtable at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and wrapped up their meetings Thursday afternoon.

A major theme at the roundtable was that Southeast's rural communities are in dire trouble.

"We live in the richest state in the Union, yet most of our people are in poverty," said Robert Sanderson Jr., fourth vice president of the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, mentioning high energy costs, few jobs and a shrinking population in the villages.

No one disputed the problem. But the discussion of solutions grew complicated.

That is what the roundtable is for. Formed two years ago, it brings together all the Tongass users it can - 32 groups at the moment - to incorporate their economic, cultural and ecological values in public policy issues throughout the region.

Its members say much of the benefit is simply in getting such varied users of the Tongass to talk. Last year, the group helped settle timber-related litigation.

The two-day agenda was loosely defined. Subgroups met to discuss topics such as renewable energy, rural communities and the short-term timber supply.

The meeting was partly a place for the Tongass users to hear about the woes of small communities or the timber industry, but also to learn of new projects: local experiments with biofuels, alternative uses for the forest, and often, unusual collaborations.

"My organization is 40 years old, and we've worked against the Forest Service for most of that time," said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.

Now his group and the Forest Service are building a log cabin out of second-growth timber. The cabin will be handicap-accessible and on the Sitka road system.

The group also discussed how timber sales will be managed under the Forest Service's new Tongass Land Management Plan, a blueprint for future uses of the 17-million-acre national forest.

Forest Service representatives presented new aspects of the plan to the roundtable. The final environmental impact statement was released recently, and most people had not digested it yet. The plan is designed to take into account all the various uses of the forest, from timber to recreation to subsistence, as time goes on.

What that will mean on the ground hasn't been hashed out yet.

"It's all in the implementation," said Larry Lunde, Forest Service planning officer for the Tongass.

Timber sales offered recently have been far too small and uneconomical for the timber industry to thrive, according to foresters and timber industry representatives.

"We've cleared a lot of volume that doesn't pencil out," said Clarence Clark, resource forester for the state Department of Natural Resources.

He said in a small group that state and federal foresters needed to offer enough usable timber to begin with, to work with environmentalists from the start to reduce the likelihood of litigation, and to make environmental reviews more efficient.

Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, was dubious about the new forest plan.

"I'm still not sure how it's now economical," he said after hearing about the improvements.

Kirk Dahlstrom of Viking Lumber Co. in Craig said the Tongass Futures Roundtable was most valuable for its small groups, both the topical subgroups and the informal ones that came together over the lunch table.

An example of that benefit showed itself just as he finished speaking. Russell Heath of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council sat down next to Dahlstrom. He asked about Viking's capacity for and interest in selling waste wood to a pellet mill, which, if built, could be a source of cheap, renewable energy in Southeast. Dahlstrom was very interested and had been waiting for someone to start such a project, he said.

Two years ago, Dahlstrom said, he might not have picked up the phone if Heath had called.

Many expressed the hope that all this talk would result in action. A smaller group, for example, has been tasked with asking rural communities themselves for specific ways the roundtable can help.

Rick Harris, executive vice president of Sealaska Corp., Southeast's regional Native corporation, said in one small group session that he and others would be frustrated if, after the two days of big-picture talk, little came of it.

"The challenge is to do something," he said.

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