Southeast groups wrestle with Tongass forest uses

Roundtable participants seek compromise in region's timber wars

Posted: Monday, October 12, 2009

Four years into an effort to bring closure to Southeast Alaska's timber wars and strengthen community stability, participants in the Tongass Futures Roundtable say there's some light in the forest; that communications are starting to show results.

"We have made progress, in that people can sit down and have these discussions together, rather than yell at each other in the newspapers," said Erin Dovichin, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy.

Dovichin is one of the originators of the roundtable, a collaborative effort of stakeholders to address public policy issues affecting Tongass National Forest and Southeast Alaska.

The group's ultimate goal is to reach a regional compromise on the future of Tongass to present to Alaska's congressional delegation, so they can work to get favorable legislation through Congress.

Dovichin acknowledged, however, that while the majority of the roundtable participants seemed happy with the discussions, some, including Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, were not.

Graham, one of several representatives of the timber industry on the roundtable, said he doesn't like the concepts under discussion because they won't work for timber.

Graham said the current Tongass land management plan provides millions more board feet of timber annually to his industry than the roundtable proposal being discussed.

"The problem (with the roundtable plan) is there won't be enough timber," he said.

While "not thrilled" with the current plan, "we are focusing on implementing the plan that we have now. That's where the Tongass futures roundtable should put their effort, rather than trying to create a new plan," Graham said.

The timber industry provides some 600 direct jobs, another 600 or so indirect jobs. It is a multi-million dollar business that contributes to the economy of Southeast Alaska, he said.

At 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest is the nation's largest, covering most of Southeast Alaska and bordering the coastal Inside Passage.

The roundtable, which plans to meet next in Sitka in the first week of December, is composed of 36 individuals representing a cross-section of timber, environmental, fisheries, Native, community, state, federal and regional interests.

Members continue to wrestle with some fundamental conflicts on timber and questions about how to keep communities in the Tongass vital.

"We have seen restoration projects and new opportunities in working with young growth timber (in Tongass National Forest)," Dovichin said. "But some big issues have alluded us in coming to resolution."

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Lindsey Ketchel said that collectively those who attended the Anchorage roundtable were pleased with the way ideas for the future of the Tongass are moving forward.

"The talks were only conceptual before," said Ketchel. "This is the first time there has been a specific comprehensive proposal involving specific lands and a multitude of interests put out for and discussed by the roundtable and the general public."

Dovichin spoke in a telephone interview Oct. 5, soon after the roundtable gathered in Anchorage for a two-day meeting to further define how it will move forward with a plan on the future use of the Tongass National Forest.

Objectives include helping the timber industry as it transitions to second-growth production, resolving Sealaska Corp.'s outstanding land entitlements and to protect areas of high biological and community value.

Sealaska's entitlements stem from lands that were to be returned to the Southeast Alaska Native regional corporation as a result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Representatives of Sealaska Corp. who attended the roundtable were traveling and unavailable to comment regarding the Anchorage meeting.

The proposal that the roundtable is working with includes sections laying the groundwork for timber development areas, Sealaska Native land claims, integrated management areas, fish and wildlife management areas, next generation areas and wilderness.

The section on timber development areas calls for some 1 million acres of land now within the national forest to be owned by the state and managed as part of the state forest under provisions of the Alaska Forest Resources Practices Act. These areas would be managed with a goal of providing both a reliable, sustainable timber supply to local mills, and protect the timber industry from litigation related to the timber supply.

The Sealaska land claims section calls for 64,000 to 85,000 acres of clear title to surface and subsurface lands to be transferred from Tongass National Forest to Sealaska Corp., to complete Sealaska's land entitlement under ANCSA.

The integrated management areas would include some 1.7 million acres of previously impacted watersheds that would remain part of the national forest.

Fish and wildlife management areas would include some 3 million acres of primarily undeveloped watersheds, to remain part of the national forest.

Next generation areas would include approximately 1 million acres of both developed and undeveloped watersheds, to be managed as remote recreation lands within the national forest.

The wilderness section includes approximately 1 million acres of primarily undeveloped watersheds that would be designated as wilderness within the national forest.

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