My turn: Facts get lost in the forest debate

Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Tongass National Forest has received plenty of media attention lately about issues such as the economics of timber harvesting and road building. Some staggering numbers were attributed to both programs.

Although I'll address those issues, I also want to let you know about other things we are accomplishing as stewards of your national forest. The Tongass is one of the "crown jewels" of public lands, and we intend to keep it that way.

Our fiscal 2004 expenditure to produce forest products was about $25 million of the $48 million cost discussed in some stories. The remaining funds were spent on administrative costs, road and bridge construction unrelated to timber harvesting, and other engineering projects. For those wanting a breakdown of the numbers, we're in the process of printing and distributing a "State of the Forest" brochure.

Last year, the small, family-owned wood products businesses in Southeast Alaska were only able to harvest 46 million board feet of timber, largely because most of the wood we have wanted to offer for sale the past few years has been tied up in lawsuits. What they harvested was a third of the demand, and not enough to keep them fully operating. These businesses are transitioning, moving toward producing more finished products from Alaskan wood, and selling them in Alaska and the rest of the United States. We support this move, but it will take time to get there.

There are also reports of "massive road building" occurring on the Tongass. In reality, less than seven miles of new road were constructed last year for timber harvesting on the entire 17-million-acre forest. Most of the other activities involved maintenance of existing roads.

Are roads we build important? Ask the 32 communities within the boundaries of the Tongass which depend on access to the natural resources of the forest for their economic and social health. Most communities also lack road and utility connections to other communities, or even to much of the lands surrounding them.

The Tongass contains 3,600 miles of Forest System Roads. It's the size of West Virginia and Delaware combined, two states not thought of as highly urbanized. Together, however, they contain 50,000 miles of road. The Tongass is one of the least roaded national forests.

Here's another fact that gets lost when roads, timber harvest, and the Tongass are discussed: Of the more than nine million acres affected by the roadless rule, timber harvest will be considered on less than 330,000 acres. In other words, well over 80 percent of the Tongass is roadless and undeveloped, and will stay that way. About 4 percent is open for consideration of wood production over the next century.

We agree with people who want roadless areas protected that's why our forest plan allows timber harvest on only 2 percent of the forest that is unroaded today.

With all the misinformation swirling around about roads and timber, sometimes our other accomplishments get lost in the dust. Here are just a few of our endeavors in 2004:

We worked hard to support subsistence harvests of fish and wildlife, keeping the "grocery store" open for thousands of rural Alaskans. We continued correcting old fish passage problems by investing in stream crossing improvements and design. We developed an invasive species strategy to prevent non-native plants from becoming the kind of problem they are on Lower 48 forests.

The Stikine River welcomed a federal subsistence fishery for the first time in 50 years. We continued widespread watershed restoration work with riparian thinning, wildlife-emphasis thinning, and in-stream large woody debris insertions. The Redoubt Lake Restoration and Management Program near Sitka garnered national recognition for collaborative fisheries management.

Here's the bottom line: We spent more than $28 million on recreation, visitor services, heritage, wilderness, minerals, vegetation, watershed, subsistence, wildlife and fish habitat, fire suppression, and land acquisition. That figure doesn't include administrative costs either.

The forest plan is our contract with the public. It tells you how we will care for this crown jewel of a forest, and how we will follow the laws and spend the money we're given. You can rest assured we will continue to implement this contract efficiently and effectively while protecting the health of the forest.

• Forrest Cole is the Tongass National Forest supervisor.

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