Timber companies that log the Tongass National Forest could bid on 10-year sale contracts if the forest becomes exempt from the roadless rule. Current sales typically run three to five years.
Last month, the state and the U.S. Forest Service reached an out-of-court settlement that temporarily exempts the Tongass from the Clinton-era rule, which prohibits timber harvesting and road-building within about 58 million acres of the 192-million-acre national forest system. About 9.6 million acres of Southeast Alaska's 16.8-million-acre Tongass have been designated roadless.
The U.S. Department of the Interior is taking comment on the temporary exemption and will decide whether the Tongass should be exempted permanently.
The Forest Service typically authorizes between 7 million and 12 million board feet for a three-year sale, said Forrest Cole, forest management director for the Forest Service's Alaska region. A timber company can log about 1 million board feet per month, and the logging season lasts seven to eight months a year. A three-year contract for 12 million board feet means that a company has up to three years to log 12 million board feet. Cole said the companies often log their allowable volume in a much shorter time period.
The proposed 10-year contracts would authorize the logging of 50 million to 100 million board feet per project, Cole said. The longer terms don't translate to more forest being logged, however, because the contracts will bundle smaller projects together. The Tongass is bound by its land management plan, which allows for the logging of 267 million board feet per year.
"We've offered a lot of small sales and generally they last for a year and they pick up and move. The operational costs of the move-ins have been very expensive to (the timber companies)," Cole said.
Forest Service officials say the move to the longer, 10-year contracts would give timber mills some economic security. But environmentalists say longer-term contracts just put logging above all other forest uses.
"It seems to us the Forest Service is hell-bent on continuing the failed policies of the past," said Buck Lindekugel, conservation director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Long-term contracts won't bring jobs to Southeast Alaska. What they will bring once again is timber dominance over other important forest uses such as hunting, commercial and sport fishing, subsistence, recreation and tourism."
But Ray Massey, regional Forest Service spokesman, said longer contracts will make timber companies more attractive to banks when they apply for loans.
"This will allow them to demonstrate that they will be viable and be able to keep people employed, and still get the loans or the bonding to maintain a business," Massey said.
Mills still will have to bid on the sales in a competitive process. Massey said two sales could be available by the end of fiscal year 2003, which is Sept. 30.
The Forest Service has 29 Tongass timber sale projects totaling about 600 million board feet in the planning phase. Five of the projects, totaling about 113 million board feet, are exempt from the roadless rule. Another 100 million board feet are not in roadless areas, and the remaining projects are being reviewed to determine whether they can be continued before a final determination has been made regarding the Tongass and the roadless rule.
Massey stressed that all sales will be subject to environmental impact assessments and require public comment periods.
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.