Stick with the facts

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A reader supplied us this cynical lead: "It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers," Robert E. Lee, 1863.

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To paraphrase Lee, we appear to have appointed our most incompetent foresters to manage the Tongass National Forest while timber experts run environmental organizations.

Environmentalists say the heart has been cut out of the Tongass; that timber sales are subsidies; that logging has hurt fish and game; that road building is detrimental to recreation and other industries; and that round logs are exported to Asia.

First, let's go to the only people who actually go out and count trees, the staff of the U.S. Forest Service. They tell us that 9.5 million acres of the 16.8 million-acre Tongass are timbered. More than one-half of that timber is in roadless reserves. Of 5.4 million acres of commercial-size old growth, only 7 percent (400,000 acres) has been harvested in the past 100 years.

"About 15 percent of the very highest high volume stands have been harvested, while 85 percent of the forest's highest volume old-growth remains unharvested. Over the next 100 years, the forest plan permits harvest of less than 10 percent more of the high-volume old-growth." So say the tree counters. And that should allow a cut of 360 million to 420 million board feet a year that the timber industry says it needs.

The Forest Service provides no subsidy to the timber industry. If anything, timber subsidizes other forest users and communities.

It costs the Forest Service $36 per thousand board feet to provide a sale. The average stumpage price the agency receives for the timber is $42.54 per thousand. It then costs the logger $300 to $400 per thousand to harvest that sale. That logger's money pays local wages and buys services and supplies locally. And most of the timber is processed in small Alaska mills. Round-log export of other national forest species is banned.

As for harm to fish and wildlife, we go to records of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In four years before Alaska took control of fisheries in 1959, the average annual harvest of salmon was 25 million fish for the entire territory. By the 1990s, state managers had built the runs to permit harvest levels above 100 million fish a year. That buildup occurred during the heaviest logging years and continues to climb to more than 200 million in some years.

The annual deer harvest increased accordingly from two bucks per hunter under federal management to as many as four deer per hunter in some areas under state management.

"Recent work suggests that certain types of partial cutting conserves deer habitat and old-growth structure, while maintaining the health of the forest," a Forest Service report states. It also states that only between 46 and 69 percent of timber harvesting is clear cut.

Who do we believe, the anti-development experts or state and federal agents who actually go out and count the trees, the wildlife and the fish? The Forest Service received thousands of comments on its Tongass Land Management Plan by its April 30 deadline. Comments citing opinions contrary to the facts should be tossed out.

Furthermore, it wasn't possible to drive between Prince of Wales communities until loggers constructed the road system. The Ketchikan campus of the University of Alaska Southeast sits on land donated by the Ketchikan Pulp Co. Other Southeast communities enjoyed improvements thanks to the timber industry. Highways were extended out of Wrangell and Petersburg, opening new housing and recreation areas. The timber industry provided personnel and equipment to the Forest Service for numerous stream enhancement projects. What have timber's critics contributed except lawsuits to stop economic progress?

And there is more to be done, such as extending roads and power lines between Southeast communities. The Forest Service must recognize in its final plan the state's request for 34 rights-of-ways for such improvements.

Without all of its year-around industries, of which timber is the one threatened, Southeast will whither in winter and be known only for its plywood window art.

• Lew Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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