The demand for timber from the Tongass National Forest is no longer as high as it once was, according to new reports calling on the U.S. Forest Service to recognize the increasing value of commercial fishing and nature-based tourism.
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"The Forest Service has failed to acknowledge these economic realities," said Deborah Perkins, the Alaska forest program manager for the Wilderness Society, which commissioned the reports.
The management plan for the Tongass is undergoing a revision process as a result of a court-mandated update.
The previous 1997 plan grossly overstated the amount of logging that could be done, according to a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2005.
"The latest plan suffers from the same flaws as the last one," Perkins said.
Timber industry advocates say that only one alternative includes the needed annual timber supply to ensure a diversified and competitive industry.
The Southeast Conference, a regional economic development organization, has commissioned its own studies on the issue, but they have not been finalized yet, said Gary Morrison, the organization's timber coordinator, during a conference in Juneau last week.
Conservation groups say the alternatives proposed for the updated plan do not accurately reflect the state of either the timber industry or the importance of other industries that rely on the 17-million acre national forest.
The Wilderness Society reports said that the market analysis used by the Forest Service to determine future timber demand relies too heavily on past lumber consumption by Pacific Rim countries and not enough on current trends.
To learn more about the Tongass forest management plan update, visit http://tongass-fpadjust.net. Comments are due by April 30.
Before 1997, up to 95 percent of the lumber produced by Southeast Alaska mills was exported to Japan.
Since 2002, however, less than 17 percent of the production has gone to Pacific Rim countries. Instead, the majority of Alaska lumber production has gone to domestic markets.
"Projections of future demand for Tongass timber should therefore be based on economic factors affecting domestic markets," states one of the reports.
Additionally, the report said, Southeast Alaska has some of the highest logging and manufacturing costs in the world. That factor, along with a high percentage of low-value species and grades of timber, makes the region increasingly less competitive.
Some alternatives presented by Forest Service officials also assume there will be development of a fully integrated timber industry in Southeast Alaska.
This would include one or more facilities processing the Tongass' lower-value wood. Many other studies have looked at the feasibility of such facilities, but none have been shown to be economically viable, the report said.
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What alternative, if any, do you think should be selected as part of the update to the management plan for the Tongass National Forest?
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The government should spend its money on helping processors become more efficient rather than on giving logging companies better access to timber, said Spencer Phillips, the senior resource economist for the Wilderness Society.
"The more processing (done locally), the better. The value to the communities is far less dependent on how many trees come out of the forest than how many dollars come out of the trees," he said. This could also put Southeast Alaska in a better position to help supply some of its own timber needs.
Other activities in Southeast Alaska, such as commercial fishing and tourism, are continuing to represent a greater share of the economy.
"(The Forest Service) has grossly underestimated the value of clean water," Phillips said. He cited the fishing industry.
"Seventy-six percent of the salmon in the Tongass region depend on streams that are in the roadless areas," he said.
According to the reports, the other industries account for a total $3 billion per year, 30 times the size of the forest products industry.
The new plan needs to reflect the new values, Perkins said.
"We believe the Forest Service should go back and redo the analysis and do it well," Phillips said.
"They are clearly stuck in the ways of the past," Perkins said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.