My turn: New opportunity for the Forest Service

Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2008

This past winter, the Forest Service did a commendable thing. Following the lead of Gustavus residents, the Forest Service scrapped its plan for another massive clear-cut in the Couverden area and offered a 90,000 board-foot sale to a small Gustavus operator.

The first Forest Service cut at Couverden occurred in the mid-1980s and was a 25 million board-foot (mmbf) disaster. More than 30 miles of road, eight bridges and more than 1,000 acres of clear-cuts cost the American taxpayer more than $5.5 million and garnered only $113,000 in receipts, barely a 2 percent return. So when the Forest Service proposed a second cut of 20 mmbf, Gustavus citizens suggested an alternative: a series of smaller sales designed to meet local needs.

Despite Forest Service skepticism that no one would want a small sale, a resident did purchase it, and now the logs from the sale are going to supply three local mills. Every stick of timber and every dollar generated from this sale will stay here locally. Ironically, when asked who they had in mind for its initial 20 mmbf sale, the Forest Service said no one.

In fact, the agency confessed that to entice a buyer, it would allow whole logs to be exported in the round without any local processing, guaranteeing virtually no local benefit. Interestingly, for many years residents in Tenakee Springs have asked the Forest Service for similar small sales for local use. Thankfully this past winter, the Forest Service offered and sold a small sale close to Tenakee Springs. The wood from this sale is going primarily to rebuild a local landmark building (see "Lean Times" in the Juneau Empire on April 27).

So, is the Forest Service finally changing with the times? Unfortunately, not entirely. The Forest Service just announced its 41 mmbf cut for the Hoonah-area Iyouktug sale. The Iyouktug area is one of the last remaining large chunks of public land available for logging on heavily logged northeast Chichagof Island. Unfortunately, like the original sale at Couverden, the Iyouktug sale is designed for a "phantom" buyer and not for local needs. It could be, if the Forest Service took some pointers from the recently completed Hoonah Community Forest Project. The HCFP charts a new path for forest management.

A diverse group of Hoonah residents, including a mill owner, along with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, identified important community use, customary and traditional areas. With the aid of naturalists and mapping experts, SEACC designed a forest plan sensitive to local needs, but which also protected important conservation values. The HCFP plan calls for aggressive restoration of previously logged areas to counterbalance any new logging. The success of the small scale sales at Couverden and Tenakee Springs, plus the insights gained from the HCFP suggest that the Iyouktug could be redesigned to better serve the residents and mills of Hoonah.

Coincidentally, the Tongass Futures Roundtable met in Hoonah this past week. Like the HCFP, the Roundtable is a diverse group of stakeholders (community leaders, fishermen, loggers, conservationists), committed to working out forest management solutions, though not just for Hoonah, but for the whole region. Like the HCFP, the Roundtable represents a new way of doing things on the forest collaboratively, with local interests and concerns in mind.

The old way the Forest Service did business must come to an end. Our forest can no longer support massive, subsidized, controversial clear-cuts. The small sales at Couverden and Tenakee Springs, the HCFP and the Roundtable all represent new ways of living and working in our forest. There's years of restoration work waiting to happen, and if we're wise, there's still room for some small timber operators. Let's hope the Forest Service continues to embrace this fresh opportunity and finally attempts to craft a truly sustainable forest plan. It's the least we can do for the generations to come.

• Paul Barnes is a commercial fisherman who lives in Gustavus.

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