My turn: Tongass is suffering 'benign neglect' under Obama Administration

Posted: Sunday, August 22, 2010

By this point, it is clear that the Obama Administration's policy toward the Tongass National Forest is benign neglect.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's May 25 announcement of a transition to second growth timber on roaded areas of the Tongass shows that he has no intent to implement the timber sale program set out in the 2008 Amended Tongass Land Management Plan.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's July 1 letter to Vilsack demonstrates the proposed transition plan cannot be implemented because it fails to comply with National Forest Management Act's requirement that timber not be harvested until it reaches its optimal age of 100 years.

So, Vilsack does not intend to implement the existing Tongass Plan and the plan he says he intends to implement is illegal. Where does that leave the timber industry?

At a time when the President is spending billions of dollars attempting to stimulate the economy, we have gone from an industry that supported 4,200 jobs 20 years ago to an industry that supports 200-300 jobs now. We have only one remaining operating sawmill on the Tongass, the nation's largest National Forest. We had 12 sawmills on the Tongass in 1900. Notwithstanding the 2008 Amended TLMP, the Tongass sells less timber than the firewood sold from the Adirondacks in New York.

It is Forest Service policy that has gotten us to this point. The Clinton Administration terminated the long-term contracts, thereby eliminating the pulp mill jobs and eliminating the market for the over-mature, low-value pulp logs, which constitute nearly half of every timber sale and whose highest and best use is in a pulp mill.

The Clinton Administration, and now the Obama Administration, tried to apply the Roadless Rule to the Tongass, notwithstanding the fact that Forest Service regulations exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.

A Forest Service mistake in computing the timber available under the 1997 TLMP resulted in the Ninth Circuit enjoining most timber sales in 2005 until the Forest Service amended its plan.

Now the Obama Administration refuses to implement the plan.

The state was a co-operator in the 2008 Amended TLMP National Environmental Policy Act document. The state should sue the federal government for failure to implement the plan.

By its failure, the Obama Administration is ignoring the will of Congress in the Tongass Timber Reform Act to "seek to provide a supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest," which meets annual and cyclical market demand. Such litigation must forcefully make the point that Congress had determined there was room on the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest for a reasonably-sized timber industry that would contribute to the economy of Southeast Alaska communities like Craig, Klawock, Wrangell and Ketchikan.

The Obama Administration must implement Congress' commitment to Alaska as set out in the TTRA and not the whims of the national environmental lobby. Otherwise, the Administration must compensate timber dependent communities that have seen their tax base dramatically eroded. It must also compensate the few remaining mills and others who have invested in the timber industry in reliance upon Congress' TTRA commitment to providing enough timber to meet market demand.

The shame is the Clinton and Obama Administrations have broken the timber industry by deliberately starving it of the timber needed for the mills to survive. The irony is that as the mills have closed one by one, the industry has lost the manufacturing capacity to process market demand. Today, for example, the Wrangell sawmill is being dismantled and sold for scrap. There were two sawmills in Wrangell when I lived there in the late 1960s. Yet, the over-mature, renewable Tongass National Forest remains relatively unchanged, with only 400,000 acres harvested since 1900.

Without a doubt, the Administration's policies have cut the heart out of the economics of the Southeast Alaska timber industry without regard for the people who live here and without recognizing that timber is a renewable resource.

• Murkowski is a former governor of and U.S. senator from Alaska

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