ANCHORAGE - Conservation groups and the U.S. Forest Service have fought for decades over management of the country's largest national forest. The wrangling has gone on for so long it has a name: The Tongass Wars.
But the Logjam timber sale gave both sides an opportunity to call a truce. For the first time, stakeholders worked cooperatively to shape a sale in the nearly 17-million acre Tongass in southeast Alaska. The experiment in mutual understanding failed. In the end, the Forest Service didn't give conservation groups what they wanted and they were bitterly disappointed.
"It is probably the most hated sale for a decade," said Mark Rorick with the Sierra Club in Juneau.
The community of Coffman Cove, one of the major log transfer sites on Prince of Wales Island, also was disappointed. It had hoped for a bigger sale.
The Logjam timber sale did all right by Kirk Dahlstrom of Viking Lumber. He operates one of the last remaining medium-sized mills in Southeast. The sale should provide Viking with the logs needed to stay in business three more years.
Three conservation groups - the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Audubon Alaska and the Alaska Wilderness League - came up with a "conservation alternative" that they said balanced the needs for jobs and a timber supply while at the same time encouraging healthy fish and wildlife populations.
Stakeholders began meeting to discuss Logjam in May 2008. The Forest Service made its final decision late last month.
When the conservation community first heard about the Logjam timber sale they were alarmed because it involved two premier watersheds, said John Schoen, senior scientist at Audubon Alaska.
The conservation alternative concentrated logging near existing roads, called for fewer roads crossing salmon streams and minimized cutting in areas with high biological values.
It spared what conservationists said were corridors in the old-growth trees used by wildlife. It cut in half the amount of old-growth timber to be cut.
"We actually compromised and we said, 'We want to try and work with you,"' Schoen said. "We were invited to work with the Forest Service and evaluate this sale and try to work out a compromise and we did."
Cole rejected the conservation alternative. He approved 73 million board feet.
Coffman Cove was hoping for 120 million board feet.
"We didn't get what we wanted either but we can live with this. We couldn't have lived with the conservation alternative," said Elaine Price, city projects manager for Coffman Cove.
Conservation groups cried foul. They wanted 37 million board feet.
"We came to the middle with a well-researched approach, but the Forest Service slammed the door in our faces complaining we cut the sale in half," said SEACC's Buck Lindekugel. "Why is the agency afraid to meet Alaskans halfway?"
Four conservation groups appealed Cole's decision to regional forester Denny Bschor, the Forest Service's top official in Alaska. Bschor reaffirmed Cole's decision and denied the issues raised by the groups.
Cole and Bschor declined to comment on Logjam. Forest Service spokesman Ray Massey said comment was being withheld until work is completed on a national forest policy that could affect the Logjam sale.
Cole has said previously that it is important to keep the few remaining saw mills in southeast Alaska in business so they will be available when the second-growth trees - those growing in previously clear-cut areas - are big enough to harvest.
Conservation groups wonder how long that will take. Years? Decades?
In the meantime, they say they won't wait while the Forest Service picks off the best remaining stands of old-growth trees in the Tongass.
"The Forest Service and the industry have creamed the crop. They have picked the best cherries," Schoen said. "Now they are going to the best of what's left."
Forest Service figures for the last decade show a steep decline in Tongass timber.
In fiscal year 1999, 146 million board feet of timber came out of the Tongass. By fiscal year 2008, it was just 28 million board feet. Only 5 million board feet was sold.
Owen Graham with the Alaska Forest Association said at a recent round-table discussion that the Tongass timber industry is dying.
"There are hardly any timber mills left and they are starving for timber," he said. "The timber industry won't even be here the way we are going."
Dahlstrom said he hopes to stay in business long enough to put in a wood-drying plant for small materials such as wood chips for when the Tongass moves toward biofuels.
"If you want to keep a timber industry alive and move forward into second growth and into biofuels you have to keep it alive. If it dies, it won't come back," he said.
Schoen said there is nothing wrong with trying to keep Viking in business. But, he said, the Tongass is a national forest.
"This forest belongs to all the people of the United States," he said.
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