My Turn: Forestry complaints are hollow

Posted: Tuesday, July 06, 2004

This is spurred by remarks I heard about a month ago on KTOO by Owen Graham, director of the Alaska Forest Association (AFA), the statewide trade association for timber interests, and more recently by the impending closure of the sawmill in Wrangell. The snippet I heard was a strident complaint about current cutting levels on the Tongass National Forest. His remarks seem peculiarly out of context - outmoded and spurious, really.

Harvest rates today approximate levels in the 1940s, before the advent of rapacious corporate behemoths, the Alaska Pulp Corporate (APC) and the Ketchikan Pulp Company (KPC), and the near liquidation of high-volume forest stands, some as high as 100,000 board feet per acre. These companies imploded because of ecological and economic realities, cutting at unsustainable levels and being unable to compete in the face of increased international competition, changing markets and disadvantageous total production costs relative to current stumpage values.

U.S. taxpayers already grossly subsidize the timber program to the tune of approximately $36 million in 2002. To add insult to injury, let's just say, "The lunch table has been set." Even-aged regrowth is ideal to burn at some point in the future. Peer reviewed research is showing the correlation between high-density fiber plantations in the West and altered fire frequencies and intensities, due in part to past misguided forest management practices - such as clear-cutting.

Site-specific land management can (and does) alter microenvironments and - in Southeast for example - could lead to "albedo," or a drying out of forest stands due to the loss of fog drip from intensive cuttings. Global climate change and increased variability in weather patterns will only aggravate the situation. These conditions are further exacerbated by past, present and reasonably foreseeable effects of clear-cutting on Forest Service, Native corporation and state lands

All is not lost, however; rather than continue to expand the timber program and roads into wildlands, the Forest Service should re-intensify forest management based on the existing road system. Current forest conditions are ripe for precommercial thinning. In tandem with fixing culverts that block salmon passage, such work could provide family-wage jobs to communities. What's more, since windthrow is the primary large-scale ecological disturbance agent, our rain forests naturally exhibit what foresters call uneven-aged conditions, with coarse structural characteristics. Clear-cutting these stands is bad forestry and makes no ecological sense. Forests should be selectively cut based on retention and density management. The Collins Pine Company and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin provide practicable examples. Lastly, community reinvestment in more efficient processors and dry kilns would go far in the efficient utilization of forest resources.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and this country's founder of "scientific forestry," showcased "excellence in land management" and "do no harm" by selectively managing the Biltmore estate. In fact, National Forests were created in response to the decidedly disastrous ecological and community effects of "cut and get." Continuity provides the central basis of forestry, belying any reasonable and contemporary notion that clear-cutting is the same as forest ecosystem management. Silviculture, by definition, means to manage and to tend to (intact) forest systems. Forest sustainability and retention of forests and maintenance of instream water flows are embedded in forestry's historic mission and creed, although the realization has been elusive.

Protection of remaining wildlands on National forests is part of a strategy that affirms and respects public preference, current scientific understanding of forest ecosystems and is economically rational. It is also sensitive to all forest community stakeholders, such as subsistence users, fish and wildlife aficionados, commercial fishers, yeomen forest operators and recreationists and tourists.

What the AFA advocates is not even scientific forestry, let alone the organic, rich and complex sticky stuff envisioned in the social, economic and ecological admixture found in the crucible of its origins. The rightful heir to scientific forestry is forest ecosystem management - recognizing that, while many of yesterday's challenges remain today, the mix is both the same and changing.

Comparing harvest levels on the Tongass in the 1940s with 2004 myopically and (a) historically conflates (short-term) supply with (long-term) local community and regional well-being. Industry's plaintive wails and homilies about harvest levels are a diversion, a smokescreen obscuring the reality of timber mining and detracting from the social and ecological significance of what is most germane today, the "where and how" of forest ecosystem management. Watch out, publics; a logging show could soon be coming to your watershed.

•Robert Silverman is a Juneau natural resource economist and environmental planner.



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