My turn: Don't subsidize Tongass destruction

U.S. House passes legislation removing funding for logging roads to roadless areas

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that removed funding for building logging roads in inventoried roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest. The legislation was passed by a bi-partisan coalition of fiscal conservatives and environmentally minded legislators. This coalition is an unusual one for our current Congress and the fact that it came together is a testament to the abuses that are being perpetrated on high-value watersheds in Southeast Alaska.

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Before getting into the specifics that led to this legislation, I want to be clear of what I mean by the term high value. By high value, I mean the portions of the Tongass that are not rock, ice, scrub forest, or bogs. What is at issue are the remaining un-protected, un-cut, and unroaded watersheds that contain big tree forests. These watersheds were targeted by the timber industry for 70 years and were also heavily selected by native corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The ones that remain uncut and unroaded contain the most valuable wildlife habitat, produce the best fish runs, and are the most valued areas for recreation in Southeast Alaska.

First, large roadless area sales are not bid on by the numerous small mill operators working on the Tongass. The 30 to 40 small mills that supply wood for local use in small towns use only a fraction of the volume the big boys do, and they get their wood off the road system. The large roadless area sales are the exclusive realm of a few companies. By name, these companies are Viking Lumber, Alcan Forest Products, Pacific Log and Lumber (also known as Seley) and Icy Straits Lumber.

Though they are small in number they account for 95 percent of the logging on the Tongass and all of the roadless-area logging. They are also routinely subsidized in a way that no other logging companies operating anywhere in our nation's national forests are. This subsidy, which would be ended by the House legislation, has taxpayers paying directly for the logging roads.

During the last few years, more then 10 of these large roadless area sales were "pre-roaded" at a staggering loss. For example, the cost of building the road for the Midway sale was $2.69 million. Icy Straits paid $53,050 for the timber. Loss to taxpayers, $2.64 million. The cost to taxpayers for building roads in the Skipping Cow sale was $1.14 million. Alcan Forest Products paid $138,128 for the sale. Loss to taxpayers $999,872. Pacific Log and Lumber picked up two sales that the Forest Service generously built the roads for - Upper Carroll II and Buckdance Madder - at a combined cost of $4.43 million. Loss to taxpayers $4.14 million.

But the biggest beneficiary of taxpayer largess over the last few years has been Viking Lumber. Nearly every sale it has bid on over the last few years has been roaded at taxpayer expense. Summore Change: $2.54 million; Kogish-Shinaku: $875,293; Fusion: $1.41 million; Finger Point: $680,991; Luk Lak II: $224,627; and Lindenberg: $391,000. This amounts to a total contribution to Viking's bottom line of $6.12 million.

The total loss from road construction on these 10 sales alone was $13.90 million. And as you read these numbers, bear in mind that nine of the sales received only one offer to buy. So much for competitive bidding on the Tongass. So why are these sales called pre-roaded? It's because the Forest Service decides to build the roads before the sales are even advertised. In some cases, it even began construction before it advertised the sale or received a bid.

Building these roads at taxpayer cost into high-value roadless areas is not the only way the Forest Service is subsidizing Viking, Seley, Alcan, Icy Straits, and potentially any other big mills it can entice to the region. The Forest Service is also routinely building and reconstructing roads in already roaded timber sale areas. And the agency loses an additional $30 million to $40 million, year in and year out, just designing and administrating the timber sale program. So the question becomes, "Why should we subsidize the destruction of Tongass roadless areas?" The House of Representatives answered that question by saying we shouldn't.

•Mark Rorick is a 35-year resident of Juneau and is chairman of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club.

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