Alaska editorial: Tongass vote shows patience running out

Posted: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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The American public has been very generous to us here in Alaska. Year after year, the state ranks first or close to it in the amount of federal money per resident hauled back home from the federal treasury.

Congress has not looked at our $34 billion Permanent Fund and said, "Alaska, take care of your own needs. Stop heisting so much of our money." The feds didn't even take back the $452 million for our two infamous bridges; Congress merely took off the earmarks that locked the money into the two controversial projects.

But there is a limit to the American people's generosity, and the U.S. House set one the other week. Members voted 237-181 to stop subsidizing logging roads in Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

The ban still faces a challenge in the Senate, and a similar effort failed to win final congressional approval two years ago.

Tongass logging targets the region's old-growth coastal temperate rain forest. It's an economic loser that requires huge government subsidies. That's because most of the best, most profitable trees have already been cut.

The richest old-growth stands on federal land were high-graded from the 1950s to the 1990s to feed two pulp mills and their associated sawmills, now closed. The big trees still available outside the national forest's protected areas are expensive to log and haul out in a way that meets modern environmental standards.

That means logging on the Tongass is a money loser for the American taxpayer. Conservationists say the annual bill is as high as $48 million; the Forest Service says it's only half that. Even so, those buying the trees pay just pennies on the dollar back to the U.S. treasury: about $400,000 last year.

Alaska Congressman Don Young took great umbrage at the vote ending the Tongass logging road subsidies. He seemed to think his colleagues were singling out our state for special punishment.

Alaskans have to remember, though, that the Tongass is a national forest, not a state forest. All citizens have a stake in it, and it's appropriate for them to have a voice in what happens there.

The future of the Tongass should not be limited to the logging jobs that only survive because the federal government is practically giving away old-growth timber. The future of the Tongass is with small-scale logging, selective cutting, and recreation and tourism jobs.

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