The Tongass is fourth on a list of the 10 most endangered national forests in the country, according to a new report from environmentalists. But the logging industry said the report is based on false assumptions, and the U.S. Forest Service said timber sales on the Tongass are way down.
Timber sales that threaten fish, wildlife and clean water, and taxpayer subsidies for cash-strapped Gateway Forest Products in Ketchikan, led to the No. 4 ranking, said Jake Kreilick of the National Forest Protection Alliance, which released the report.
The Tongass "includes the biggest tracts of coastal temperate rainforest remaining in the U.S.," he said. "The key threats at this junction are, No. 1, commercial logging that exceeds 100 million board feet a year, all on old-growth."
The Alliance's member groups helped write the list. It ranks the nation's forests based on harvest plans, timber economics, water quality, forest roads, old-growth logging and political factors, Kreilick said.
The Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, which accounts for about 33 percent of the world's black cherry timber supply, was first on the list because of logging and oil and gas development, according to the group. It was followed by the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and Oklahoma and the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and Wyoming. After the Tongass, the Umpqua in Oregon was No. 5 on the list.
Owen Graham, executive director of the timber industry's Alaska Forest Association in Ketchikan, said the Tongass ranking is ludicrous.
"It's laughable. We've been laying off hundreds and hundreds of people." he said.
The Tongass Land Management Plan allows logging on 3 percent of the forest over a 100-year period, and second-growth won't be ready for another 50 years, Graham said. Timber harvests were down this year because of weak markets and a court injunction that halted logging this spring, he said.
The report lists Gateway Forest Products' veneer mill in Ketchikan as a threat because of its potential to devour 100 million board feet of old-growth forest and its need for millions of dollars in government subsidies, it said.
Gateway spokesman Cliff Skillings said even if the veneer plant is running at full capacity with three shifts, it would need only 45 million board feet of timber. The plant is running with one shift currently, and the sawmill isn't operating, he said.
"We haven't had a grant yet. Our loans from the borough were exactly that loans," he said. "There are no subsidies in this thing. Once again, these groups are out to lunch."
Forrest Cole, a U.S. Forest Service staff officer on the Tongass, estimated the timber industry cut 54 million board feet of wood in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, which could be an all-time low. The agency tries to sell 267 million board feet a year, and demand has hovered at about half that in recent years, he said.
Forest Service spokesman Dennis Neill said timber harvest is allowed on 676,000 acres of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest.
"The numbers don't really add up to some massive destruction of temperate rainforest in the Tongass. There are millions and millions of acres on this national forest that have not been modified by human impact in the last 100 years and will not be modified in the next 100 years," he said.
While the National Forest Protection Alliance has advocated the end to commercial logging in the nation's forests, groups such as the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council support some small-scale, value-added activities.
Aurah Landau, a grassroots organizer with SEACC, said the Tongass will be facing challenges in the form of new leadership, a rollback to the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan and proposed timber sales at Point Couverden near Juneau, Gravina Island near Ketchikan and Emerald Bay on the Cleveland Peninsula, among others.
The NFPA's Kreilick said whether the Tongass stays on the list will depend on those timber sales and the status of a federal initiative that would ban new roads and logging on unroaded national forest land.
Rounding out the group's list of endangered national forests are the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho; the George Washington and Jefferson forests in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky; the Ottawa in Michigan; the Gifford Pinchot in Washington and part of the Tahoe National Forest in California.
This is the first time a group has ranked the nation's forests based on environmental issues, although rivers and national parks have been the focus of similar reports, Kreilick said.
The National Forest Protection Alliance is one of two groups that sued the Forest Service in 1999 over use of the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center in Ketchikan. In response, the agency allowed the groups to make a presentation critical of logging on the Tongass.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.