My Turn: Tongass timber sales lose millions of dollars -- again

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

The late Sen. Everett Dirksen is often quoted as having said, "A billion here, a couple billion there - first thing you know it adds up to be real money." In Alaska, it would be safe to say that a million here and there would be considered to be "real money" too.

In Southeast Alaska there are many communities where a couple of extra million would make a huge difference. Schools are under-funded, roads need repair. A little extra cash could improve health care, create teen programs, enhance fisheries, improve fish and game habitat, hire new teachers. Wouldn't it be nice if the feds had an extra $30 million or so to spend on Southeast communities?

A report released last week by the U.S. Forest Service for fiscal year 1998 (the latest year for which they have released figures) reported that the Tongass National Forest closed the year with a $33.7 million operating deficit. This is by far the largest loss of any national forest timber program in the United States and continues a decades-old pattern of American taxpayers subsidizing Tongass timber losses. We are paying to have our national forest chopped down and shipped to Asia.

Nationwide, the USFS lost about $126 million on its timber program in 1998. Add that to the $2 billion they lost from 1992 to 1997 and it starts to look like "real money." In fact, a report released this year from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office states: "Eliminating all future timber sales from those regions (Northern, Rocky Mountain, Southwestern, Intermountain and Alaska) would reduce the Forest Service's outlays for the 2002-11 period by about $1.6 billion...."

From 1992 through 1998, the Tongass timber program cost taxpayers $204 million, according to 1995 and 1998 GAO reports and the latest timber sale report. In '98, the Tongass timber program was responsible for 625 direct jobs. That works out to about $53,920 of government subsidy per direct job!

Contrast that with a recently released report by the Alaska Conservation Foundation that estimates more than 55,000 direct, and 84,000 total jobs in Alaska are dependent upon a healthy environment. The industries looked at in the study include commercial fishing, tourism, guiding, sportfishing, wildlife viewing, subsistence, and government jobs managing natural resources. Twenty-six percent of Alaska's jobs depend upon a healthy environment and they bring in over $2.6 billion annually. "Real Money!"

Government has never been, and never should be, run as a business. If it were, we would close all those non-profitable schools and turn them into liquor stores. But if we are going to spend the taxpayer's dollars and cut down the public forests, there should at least be some tangible public benefit, not just profits for multi-national corporations and cheap timber for Asia.

Cutting timber on national forest land in Alaska is not only a money loser for the American taxpayer, it is also a loser for fish and wildlife and the Alaskans that depend upon those resources to put food on the table. The trees are worth a lot more to everyone, Alaskans and the nation, as intact forests and ecosystems. People are willing to pay "real money" to visit Alaska or to eat Alaskan salmon.

There are a lot of fine people who work for the Forest Service; people who care about the natural environment and believe in good stewardship of public lands. Let's put them to work fixing existing roads, clearing fish passages, restoring damaged watersheds. Let's spend that money on habitat, fish enhancement, and doing a better job of managing the impacts of a growing tourism industry.

We are still making the same old mistakes of the past. We are managing our Alaskan forests in the same way that resulted in the loss of 96 percent of America's old-growth forest.

As the director of a conservation organization, I am in the business of "selling" hope. I spend my days telling people that it is not too late and that they really can make a difference. There is a lot more at stake here than money. What's at stake is our children's future. Alaska is America's last hope. Either we have learned from our past mistakes, or we are doomed to repeat them until there is nothing left.

Pat Veesart is the executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.



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