Tongass roads lead to nowhere

Outside editorial

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The following editorial appeared in the Seattle Times on Friday:

U .S. taxpayers can howl as loudly as environmentalists over Bush administration plans to expand logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

Predictably, the proceeds from timber sales will be less than the cost of preparing the sales and building roads, so the expense to the national treasury is a serious question.

A sobering economic analysis by the state's Department of Labor paints a glum picture for Alaska's timber industry in a global market.

Taxpayers have spent billions to construct and maintain 380,000 miles of roads in the national forests. The annual maintenance bill alone runs to $8.5 billion.

This week the Department of Agriculture said 300,000 acres in the Tongass would be exempted from a Clinton-era rule against more road-building in national forests.

The announcement has been expected since June, when the administration revoked roadless protection in Alaska's Tongass and Chugach national forests as part of the settlement of a lawsuit it chose not to fight.

For Alaska's environmentalists, the prospects of more logging raises the specter of clear-cutting in the late 1980s and early 1990s that even the U.S. Forest Service now views as excessive. Logging and road-building have financial and natural consequences from silted streams and blocked fish passages.

Environmental and aesthetic considerations are important, but so is employment. The prospect of jobs for Alaska's slumping forest-products industry helped sell this rollback of roadless protections.

Those lost paychecks cannot, however, be neatly laid off on environmental regulations and restrictions.

Alaska is a high-cost competitor in an industry where worldwide production of timber has exceeded demand for the past decade, according to the state's December economic trends report. Employment was hurt by mergers and consolidations done with an eye on worldwide business conditions.

Major mill closures in Southeast Alaska eliminated local processors. Timber is being exported as raw logs with no value added.

Competition in the raw-material market is hurting Alaska as well. Russia and China are huge suppliers of logs. Alaska also competes with British Columbia and Lower 48 states for the U.S. domestic market.

Selling old-growth trees for the price of alder is no boon to the treasury. Despite all of Alaska's natural bounty, timber has not been a major source of Alaskan employment in the modern era, the state concluded.

If U.S. taxpayers are going to send money to Alaska, more people might be put to work for a greater return if the investment is made in tourism, recreation and commercial fishing.

Paying to build and maintain more roads to cut more trees no one wants is suspect public policy.

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