A first-ever field examination by nonagency biologists is fueling concerns that the biodiversity of the Tongass National Forest is threatened by too much logging of its largest, most valuable trees.
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The Sitka Conservation Society will launch an initial report this week, detailing a wide assortment of problems discovered by a pair of Panhandle biologists in timber management areas of the central and southern Tongass.
The major conclusions: Proposed timber sales are targeting scarce cedar and large, old trees, and they are squeezing out wildlife.
"None of the proposed cutting units we visited were laid out with full regard for wildlife habitat, or with acknowledgment of the rarity value of extremely large, old trees," according to the report, the first in a series planned in the Sitka environmental group's Ground-truthing Project.
Tongass National Forest spokesman Dennis Neill said Friday his agency's biologists will take "a deeper look" at the report's findings, but he said the national forest only adopts findings that have been "peer reviewed" by other scientists. Neill also disagreed that current Tongass practices harm wildlife habitat. "We devote a great deal to maintain the viability of species," Neill said.
The major objective of the Ground-truthing Project - similar to other forest audits that environmental groups have funded elsewhere in the United States - is to assess how well fisheries, old-growth trees, wildlife and other resources are being protected in the Tongass, said Kenyon Fields, the project's manager for the Sitka Conservation Society.
"Whether it is cedar trees being disproportionately targeted, or widespread removal of deer habitat ... the (report shows) comprehensive effects of Tongass logging are clearly mounting," Fields said.
The two biologists hired by the Sitka Conservation Society- Richard Carstensen, of Juneau, and Bob Christensen, of Lemesurier Island - said they plan additional surveys of Tongass timber units this summer. Their initial report is based on their 2005 summer surveys at 12 national forest timber sales.
Carstensen and Christensen inspected historic and proposed logging projects on foot, using a motor boat to hop from island to island last summer, from June 8 to July 6. The pair bushwhacked through old clearcuts and inspected large trees. They created journals, generated maps and photos, and authored a final report now available online.
Carstensen said they typically found cedar - a declining but valuable tree in the forest - and large hemlock and spruce specimens inside the timber units. Sometimes, they discovered that the boundaries of the timber units had been changed to access more valuable trees. "It's clear that we are still high-grading. It's just the targets have shifted," Carstensen said.
For conservationists' report on Tongass timber, go to http://www.sitkawild.org.
Ground-truthing report's major findings:
Inaccuracy: Due to a lack of precision, maps used to plan timber sales often do not show the presence of the most valuable timber.
High-grading: Foresters are designating the oldest and most valuable trees, especially cedar, for logging. In some sales, boundary lines have been stretched to obtain additional high-value trees.
Fragmentation: Game animals must squeeze through smaller corridors between proliferating clearcuts.
Failed buffers: The strips of trees left standing after logging projects as buffers zones for wildlife habitat often have blown down.
Steep slopes: Some timber sales are planned on slopes exceeding 72 percent, leading to potential erosion problems.
Corner Bay: A heavily logged watershed in Tenakee Inlet, across the water from Tenakee Springs. Planning for a fourth sale comprising 18 million board feet is under way.
Sitkoh Bay: Much of the productive forest already has been logged out of this watershed just north of Peril Strait, and more logging is planned.
False Island: Past logging along the shoreline took out a vast area of winter deer habitat.
Ushk Bay: One of the last watersheds near Sitka to be targeted for logging. It contains some large yellow cedar.
Threemile Arm: Mapping errors were found in this proposed 20 million-board-foot timber sale on the eastern peninsula of Kuiu Island, which is under litigation. Logging plans could harm wintering deer.
Emerald Bay: Mostly pristine watershed on the Cleveland Peninsula, also containing a proposed timber sale under litigation. The sale is located at a "pinch point" on the peninsula.
Tuxekan Island: Heavily logged limestone and marble bedrock island off Prince of Wales Island.
Kosciusko Island: Heavily logged limestone and marble bedrock island near Prince of Wales Island.
Summore Change: High-graded project area with erosion and blowdown in a clearcut buffer zone around a cave on north Prince of Wales Island.
Logjam Creek: High-graded Prince of Wales watershed with high natural fragmentation and new logging planned, including on steep slopes exceeding 72 degrees.
Chasina North: High-graded Prince of Wales timber project with blowdown on the margin of previous clearcuts, and cumulative harm to wildlife habitat due to adjacent Native corporation logging.
Cholmondeley Sound: Prince of Wales timber project area with high natural fragmentation and local use issues. Logging planned on slopes exceeding 72 degrees.
The practice of high-grading is common in the timber industry, which naturally seeks to maximize its profits by selecting the most valuable trees in a timber stand. But the practice is worrisome in the Tongass because the forest is one of the last places in the United States where such large trees exist, Carstensen said.
In the past, Tongass loggers sought out the most valuable trees on the beach fringes and the rich stream drainages of the forest. Now it is illegal to log along streams and beaches, so the search for big trees has shifted to the less-abundant patches of cedar, spruce and hemlock on the forest slopes, Carstensen said.
Once those trees are gone, it will take hundreds of years to replace them, Carstensen said.
No one has yet estimated how many of the Tongass' remaining ancient, big trees are protected, versus how many remain in areas designated for timber production.
Alaska Audubon Society chapters are planning to publish a Tongass report soon that may include some such estimates.
"It's important to keep track of what is out there and what is being lost," said Matt Kirchhoff, a nongame biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who has seen the report.
"If what (the report) is saying is true, then I would think the Forest Service would want to look into it," Kirchhoff added.
The timber industry isn't interested in any additional loss in its available timber, however, said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. Graham noted Friday that only 4 percent of the Tongass is designated for timber production at present.
To reduce access to trees in the small timber base "doesn't makes any sense at all. What we need now is to maintain enough land base for growing trees," Graham said.
If environmentalists want to further limit loggers' access to the timber, they should propose swapping out land now in protected status, Graham suggested.
It's not the acreage set aside for timber that is driving the concern from environmentalists, Fields responded. "It's about the ability of (forest) managers to assure protection for biodiversity," he said.
The report's timing is noteworthy because the Tongass has just launched its own court-ordered review of its land management plan. Among its findings, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Forest Service had erroneously doubled the estimate of marketable timber in the Tongass. Just last week, biologists spent a week at meetings in Ketchikan discussing the forest plan's conservation strategy, which also will be reworked.
Though Carstensen and Christensen alleged numerous apparent problems within the timber units, they also proposed a number of proposals to correct them.
One idea they've proposed is to restrict or eliminate harvest of trees in timber stands where the average diameter size exceeds 21 inches. Another suggestion to protect passage by wildlife is prohibiting new clearcuts immediately next to older ones.
In general, the project is an effort to get beyond the "us versus them" mentality that has dominated Tongass timber debates for decades, Christensen said.
"We're trying to build trust here with good information," Christensen said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.