Tongass timber wars simmer under forest planning process

Community leaders want more control over decisions made on public land

Posted: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Community leaders given a chance to comment on forest planning Tuesday during a regional roundtable in Juneau said they want more control over decisions made on public lands surrounding their towns.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The inability of the U.S. Forest Service to get projects through its system, or even make a plan to change the system, is hurting Alaska's rural communities that depend on the forest for livelihoods and sustenance, roundtable attendees said.

"The Forest Service has an obligation to see that it helps keep local communities alive," Petersburg Community Development Director Leo Luczak said, adding that timber revenues have fallen to such lows that "communities are dying."

The comments were made during a breakout session on economics at the Centennial Hall event, which covered wide-ranging topics such as climate change and wildlife habitat. About 75 people attended the first set of meetings. A second roundtable was scheduled for later Tuesday evening.

The event was held to gather input from Alaskans on a new national planning rule the Forest Service wants to write. Several people participated Tuesday by telephone and Web. The planning rule sets the national agenda for how individual forests should develop their management plans.

At 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the nation's largest, covering the entire Southeast region. The Chugach, at 5 million acres, is the second largest.

Thorne Bay Mayor Jim Gould said Outside interests want to lock up Tongass' timber like it's a national park. A management balance needs to be achieved so there's some timber for harvesting, as well as other forest-supported industries that help residents make a living, he said.

The region's small communities have high unemployment and a high cost of living. Many blame legal gridlock over timber harvest proposals for the loss of a good way of life. Others believe harkening back to Southeast's timber heyday is unrealistic.

"Rural community development is not going to depend on the timber industry anymore," Juneau Sierra Club President Mark Rorick said. "We want to get away from the old paradigm where logging was the priority over all other uses and move toward a restoration economy."

Restoration involves some timber work but the focus is on improving the forest for the benefit of humans and wildlife.

Joe Mehrkens argued that Southeast's timber industry was supported by federal "pork" subsidies secured by former Sen. Ted Stevens. He called for "honesty" from the Forest Service about timber's economic possibilities for rural communities.

Many agreed that some level of timber activity needs to come back to the region. Some conservation groups are engaged in discussion about the possibilities of restoration harvesting, and a Prince of Wales Island co-operative has formed to process wood into a marketable biomass product.

"Absolutely we need to look at sustainable yields," Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Lindsey Ketchel said. "Let's keep our focus on keeping small communities viable."

Whatever priorities are decided, a new forest planning system is needed. Timelines of six years to get a decision on one proposal are not unusual. The forest plan in this region has been under revision since 1987. It is still not done.

"The process takes too long," USFS planner Randy Coleman said. "The Tongass is cited as a poster child for that problem."

And the problem seems to be systemic. This is the agency's fourth attempt in 28 years to revise its new national planning rule. Other attempts have failed, mired down in legal challenges.

Despite the challenges, many forest users see the renewed effort to write a planning rule as a way to change management on the 163 million acres of forest and grasslands the Forest Service controls. Climate change could be included in the rule, for example, using new concepts like carbon credits.

The process to write the new planning rule will be a long one.

Tuesday's roundtable was one of nine regional meetings taking place across the country. There also are national meetings, a science roundtable and another realm of public input occurring on the Web.

The agency will sift through the comments and write up a draft planning rule that also is subject to a round of public comments before a final rule is written. The final rule is slated to be published in November 2011.

The agency hopes its expanded public process this time around will prevent the legal challenges that have happened in the past, Coleman said.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at

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