ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday announced a program to open up economic opportunities and spare the remaining old-growth trees in the country's largest national forest.
The forest service said the approach in Tongass National Forest will move timber harvesting into roaded areas of previously clear-cut sections and away from old-growth timber in roadless areas.
The program is in line with a new direction the Obama administration set for the 17-million-acre rain forest in southeast Alaska, where the struggling timber industry, influential conservation groups and the forest service have wrangled for decades over forest management.
"This administration is committed to developing a framework to help communities stabilize and grow new jobs," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The path forward must lead to job creation while protecting old-growth roadless areas, and the transitional framework announced today is a big step in the right direction."
That framework is designed to provide jobs, including ones in the developing fields of forest restoration and renewable energy, as well as tourism and recreation. A wide array of other business opportunities are in the works, from growing oysters to restoring totem poles.
The forest service is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development programs and the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration to implement the transition.
The liaison with Rural Development is key because loans and grants can be offered under 30 different programs, said Alaska Regional Forester Beth Pendleton.
The goal is to move quickly away from harvesting old-growth trees and toward new businesses that will sustain the small communities scattered throughout the Tongass, which covers up to 80 percent of the Alaska Panhandle.
A few old-growth sales in roaded areas will be offered to keep the timber industry's infrastructure working while the transition is made to second-growth harvest.
Pendleton said long-term stewardship contracts will help bridge the transition. Those timber contracts, the first of which will be ready in 2011, will include additional business opportunities, such as pre-commercial thinning, recreational trail and cabin replacement work, and fish and wildlife habitat restoration.
Last fall, communities came up with their own list of projects. They ranged from building a bald eagle observatory to building a biomass energy facility to developing broadband services.
One of those ideas is already under way, Pendleton said. In Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island, totem poles are being restored after the town requested some cedar logs from the forest service.
Pendleton, who was attending a meeting of Tongass stakeholders in Kake to discuss the plan, said the service was excited about expanding economic opportunities in Southeast.
"We believe that we can grow some new jobs, expand some existing operations," she said.