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The Forest Service is amending the 1997 Tongass land-use management plan. The Forest Service was forced into this action after it was found guilty of doubling its own experts' projections for Tongass timber to create a market that didn't exist.
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The new forest plan is in its draft phase, and the Forest Service is soliciting public comments. Judging from the Forest Service's proposed action (alternative No. 6), it appears it desperately needs our help. This alternative proposes cutting 267 million board feet per year, the same amount as the 1997 plan, despite dramatic changes in the timber industry.
Over the last six years, the annual cut has been 46 million board feet. In 1996, less than one-third of the volume under contract was logged. In 2001, less than one-eighth. Shortage of logs has not been the issue. But being competitive in the world market has.
The realities that plague the Southeast Alaska timber industry still exist: highest logging, manufacturing and labor costs; least amount of infrastructure; slowest growing trees; and greatest distance from markets. These issues aren't going away. Despite this, the Forest Service continues to dreg up its tired, pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
To create this "new" forest plan, the Forest Service relies on different justifications. One is a timber-demand analysis by Brackley et al in 2006. Another is mill capacity. The Brackley report presents four scenarios, with No. 1 being status quo (probably the most accurate), and increasing the cut from there with No. 4 proposing a cut of 370 million board feet.
Scenarios Nos. 3 and 4 would be laughable if they weren't so potentially damaging. The third scenario envisions a large processing facility (a MDF or ethanol plant) being built. The fourth scenario envisions two plants. I challenge the Forest Service to show us one or two companies willing to build such a facility. I challenge the Forest Service to produce bankers willing to finance such a boondoggle. If these mythical people existed, believe me, we'd know of them by now.
And the figures used determine mill capacity. God only knows how the Forest Service dreamed up those numbers. The two mills I'm familiar with (both in Hoonah) show the mill capacity greater to what's actually being cut by a factor of six and 10!
The Forest Service's figures are bad enough, but I sense a deeper problem. Why are market demand and mill capacity even being used to determine how much of our forest is cut? What if we managed our fisheries in the same manner? Think about the king crab fleet capacity back in the late 1970s. We almost wiped out the resource, didn't we? I'm a halibut fisherman. I guarantee you we have the capacity to catch more halibut. Every spring the freezers are empty so the market's there for more. But we don't, because we fish on a sustained-yield basis. Thankfully, the Forest Service isn't managing our fisheries. There wouldn't be a crab or halibut left! So, why is our forest being managed differently? It's a living entity that nourishes and sustains us. It's our home. It's time to treat it as such.
The Forest Service needs to finally see the forest and the trees. There can, and should be, a wood-products industry, cutting some lumber for local markets and perhaps a little specialty wood for export. I've built two homes entirely with Tongass wood, so I've some idea what's possible. But to continually dream and propose returning to the days of industrial-scale logging in the Tongass isn't in our best long-term interest.
Let's size the industry to reflect what our forest can offer considering all users. We owe it to those who will inherit our efforts. I encourage everyone to comment at http://tongass-fpadjust.net/ or call (907) 225-3101 for more information. The comment deadline is April 12.
One final point: Kind of a snowy winter, eh? Think there might be some deer dying off? Absolutely. Where do you think the few surviving deer are hanging out? In our precious, little-remaining old growth. Guaranteed! Hurry up. Someone go tell the Forest Service.
Paul Barnes is a 36-year resident of Southeast Alaska and a commercial fisherman.