Biomass plan a step backwards

Posted: Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Recent articles and opinions in the Juneau Empire have alternately praised the promises and exposed the flawed logic of establishing a biomass industry on the Tongass National Forest. My perspective has been gained as a rural resident of the Tongass, a commercial fisherman, and subsistence deer hunter. There is a whole realm of this biomass discussion that deserves further scrutiny.

A pellet fuel entrepreneur recently explained in the Empire, "Biomass can't be taken out of the forest profitably unless it comes as a waste product generated by another, more profitable activity such as logging for sawlogs."

This statement causes me great concern. As most any gardener will tell you, a successful growing season depends on starting with well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. The same can be said for our temperate rainforest.

The Tongass has been recycling its nutrients for millennia, derived in large part from the "biomass" the pellet fuel guy calls "a waste product." That biomass depends on complex interactions from mammals to micro-organisms to make its nutrients available to tree roots. That same biomass also represents stored carbon, which when burned as pellet fuel, unnecessarily accelerates climate change and ocean acidification.

Southeast has vast untapped renewable energy resources that release no carbon emissions at all. Our greatest failure will be measured by not harnessing their power.

There's a huge difference between old-growth forest that gets clearcut and the second- growth trees that grow back. The short-rotation, "intensive management" now being talked about to supply a biomass industry is even further removed from any definition of a forest. It's more accurately a tree plantation - an agricultural crop that cannot support the complex forest community found in old growth. That includes the Sitka black-tail deer I hunt for food.

Subsistence hunters in rural communities across Southeast Alaska now struggle to find the deer we all depend on. Recent heavy winter deer kill in the Tongass is hitting us hard this fall. No longer is this about a few dated news articles of record snowfall. It's about increasing competition on favorite hunting grounds and progressively declining deer.

Past timber management on the Tongass National Forest has contributed significantly to this decline. The island I live on, Mitkof Island, once had an incredibly abundant deer population but two factors quickly changed that. A combination of extensive clearcuts targeting deer winter range and two hard winters decimated the deer population. Now, 40 years later, Mitkof has the most restricted deer season in the state.

Several hundred thousand acres of Tongass clearcuts targeted high volume old-growth stands that were once crucial deer winter range. These former winter refuges are now second-growth stands with canopies closing over, starving the understory of light. Without light, there's no browse for deer.

Commercial thinning helps in the short term, but peer reviewed science has long established the fact that only centuries restore old growth dynamics. Proponents of biomass fallaciously claim commercial thinning will "restore wildlife habitat," but as the pellet fuel guy admits, he intends to profit from restored clearcuts, not wildlife habitat.

Several thousand miles of logging roads also factor in the decline of salmon habitat and deer. Not only do their failing culverts imperil salmon streams, roads provide opportunities for hunters' ATVs to cover more ground. Just about anybody can hop the ferry from Ketchikan to Hollis and join the "road hunt" on Prince of Wales Island.

Wolves also use these logging roads, both as rapid travel corridors and ambush sites for deer. That is, until the deep winter snow piles up. During heavy snowfall events, the logging roads, beaches, muskegs, early second-growth and fresh clearcuts can become too deep for deer to travel on, and too deep to find forage to remain alive on. They become marooned, as do residents of rural communities of the Tongass, by their physical proximity to tree plantations. These bitter realities are being ignored as if their hard lessons were never learned.

A biomass industry on the Tongass represents a tragic step backwards into the '50s-era mentality of false pulp mill promises, and taxpayer boondoggles financing a profound collective loss. Willful ignorance of history is among the saddest of losses.

• David Beebe sits on the Advisory Committee of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, and the boards of Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Tongass Conservation Society. He lives in Petersburg.

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