Tongass enemies put heads together to resolve conflicts

Round-table group to meet again today; public invited to join

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006

This summer, all of the major players in the decades-long battle over the Tongass National Forest and its sagging timber industry have decided to call a détente.

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Southeast Alaska environmentalists, loggers and state and federal regulators are meeting face-to-face to try to resolve their conflicts over Tongass timber sales and other thorny federal land disputes.

"I have faith for this group. I think it could be a new beginning for the Tongass," said Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole.

The stakes could be high.

The Panhandle's few mid-size sawmills are sending out alarms that they face imminent closure if they can't get more wood.

Panhandle Native corporations are trying to resolve their final federal land entitlements in the Tongass.

The Tongass timber program is tackling a major forest plan revision, after a federal court last year ruled that the agency's staff had erroneously doubled the projected market demand for Tongass wood.

A court injunction in the same lawsuit seeks to shut down all Tongass timber sales in roadless areas and on Kuiu Island.

The first meeting of the traditional enemies, convened quietly in Bothell, Wash., was no guarantee that they would ever again sit down in a room together. That was in May.

The negotiators' progress is being watched from the highest levels of the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency chief, Dale Bosworth, and Mark Rey, Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, both attended the first meeting.

Rey said he and Bosworth just wanted to lend support to the group.

"We've tried just about everything else. ... I'm hopeful that these folks will come up with something that the people of Southeast Alaska can rally around," Rey said.

Since the Bothell meeting, the 31 participants have dubbed themselves the Tongass Futures Roundtable and they have met twice - once in Wrangell and this week, in Juneau - without getting into fist fights or storming out of the room.

That's not to say that the meetings, to which the public is now invited, haven't at times roiled with tension.

Today is the second day of the gathering. The first big item on the agenda: a timber working group report.

A third meeting, Aug. 23 to 24 in Ketchikan, will be a critical one, likely where the group will attempt to hash out some major agreements amongst themselves about Tongass wood.

Because the round table is an informal process, any agreements they make do not have legal force. Still, the Forest Service is firmly plugged in.

On Wednesday, in a small conference room on the ninth floor of the Baranof Hotel, the round table's two-day meeting in Juneau started off with a volley of jokes and introductions.

By mid-afternoon, however, foreheads were furrowed. Owen Graham, of the Alaska Forest Association, got an earful from Juneau environmentalist Tim Bristol over the industry's estimates of the timber volume needed to keep the industry operating in the Panhandle.

Graham said the timber for reopening Ketchikan's beleaguered veneer mill and Wrangell's Silver Bay Logging must be included in the timber volume calculation.

"It's going to be hard for the (group) to talk about mills that aren't open right now," Bristol said.

The sessions are "like watching some epic battle between heavyweight fighters. There's a lot of bobbing and weaving going on," said Bristol, executive director of Trout Unlimited's Alaska chapter.

The round table was formed on the belief that negotiation may be the only way left to get locally acceptable solutions to controversial matters on the Tongass, ranging from tourism to subsistence.

The mills will face a continued tight supply over the next 24 to 36 months while the Tongass updates its forest plan, Cole said.

At least one mill in Southeast Alaska, Viking Lumber in Klawock, faces closure unless additional timber is freed up in the next six months, timber industry officials said. That will hurt employment in Craig and Klawock.

"There is insufficient wood to keep the mills in operation," Cole said.

Though the Forest Service originally contacted the National Forest Foundation to start a consensus-building project for the Tongass, the federal agency is not running the meetings or paying for them.

"We're just at the table," Cole said.

The meetings are run by the National Forest Foundation, a private partner to the U.S. Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy.

At the start, Cole said, he had envisioned a greater role for the Forest Service.

"Originally, it was my push to convene this meeting and pretty much manage it. (But) there was concern about what my agenda was. ... There was interest in having not just another Forest Service meeting," Cole said.

He said his staff has already generated 38 alternatives for revising its forest plan to meet a court mandate. He said he hopes the group will negotiate some agreements that can be tackled by the Forest Service before a final decision is made.

"We'll strongly consider extending the timeline for our decision," Cole said.

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