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Final Tongass logging plan draws mixed reaction

By Scott Streater

Reposted from E&E News on December 9, 2016

The Forest Service has formally approved a much-debated land-use plan amendment that calls for phasing out clearcutting of old-growth trees over a 16-year period in Tongass National Forest.

Some environmentalists criticized the move as not going far enough to protect the nation’s largest forest, while the timber industry is likely to object, as well.

Tongass National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart has finalized a record of decision (ROD) that calls for shifting to young-growth trees in areas that have been previously logged in the nearly 17-million-acre forest in southeast Alaska, according to a notice published in yesterday’s Federal Register.

The Forest Service announced today that it has finalized the ROD, completing a yearslong effort to amend the Tongass land and resource management plan to identify acres that should be available for timber harvest.

The amendment is based on the unanimous recommendation of the Tongass Advisory Committee, whose members include representatives from the timber industry, conservation groups, Alaska Natives and local government (E&E News PM, Nov. 20, 2015).

“Through years of community collaboration efforts, the Tongass has sought a resolution to long-standing conflicts regarding timber management,” Stewart said in a statement. “This amendment is the culmination of those collaborative efforts, and it is aligned with the unanimous recommendations of the Tongass Advisory Committee.”

The Forest Service, which evaluated the amendment in a formal environmental impact statement, issued a draft ROD last summer. In it, the agency projected it will need to offer 46 million board feet of timber a year during the transition period “in order to maintain a viable timber industry and meet market demand.”

In the first decade, most of the logged trees would be from old growth, with more being produced from young growth in later years, the agency said (GreenwireJuly 5).

The Forest Service says 16 years is the right length of time to gradually move toward younger-growth harvests, giving trees time to grow while meeting a directive from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to move away from old-growth logging.

“This amended plan keeps momentum moving toward ending the long-outdated practice of old-growth clearcut logging on the Tongass,” said Susan Culliney, Audubon Alaska’s policy associate. “Cutting giant old trees in the remote and wild Tongass racks up economic, social and environmental deficits.”

But other conservation groups blasted the amendment, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect trees in the nation’s largest forest, which spans 500 miles of coastal southeast Alaska within the most expansive temperate rainforest in the world.

Among the critics is Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute, an Oregon-based conservation group that presented its own research suggesting the Forest Service could move much faster and harvest enough adequate timber to move out of old-growth areas by 2020.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts as more old growth is lost over the next 16 years. That’s not really a transition,” DellaSala said. “Overall, they really squandered an opportunity here to quickly exit out of old-grow harvesting. Tongass remains the only national forest in the country that’s still doing large-scale old-growth logging.”

Old-growth logging is controversial because the older trees are considered more ecologically valuable to wildlife, including wolves and deer. They also store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the Forest Service said.

Patrick Lavin, Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the group is “both heartened and troubled” by the amendment finalized in the ROD.

“On one hand, we appreciate that the Forest Service intends to guide logging away from old-growth forests,” Lavin said. “Transitioning out of old-growth logging will provide major conservation and economic benefits to southeast Alaska and the nation.”

But, he added, “the amendment fails to set any actual limit on that old-growth logging, and actually allows more logging in the coming decade than has occurred over the past decade.”

The timber industry has expressed concerns about the plan in the past, and is likely to object to the amendment.

Industry officials have argued that young growth is not commercially viable or plentiful just yet in the forest.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has echoed those concerns, and she asked the Forest Service to hold off on finalizing the amendment until it completes a detailed inventory to ensure there is enough young-growth timber to sustain the industry.

A spokeswoman for Murkowski said Alaska’s senior senator plans to issue a formal statement on the amendment later today.

Murkowski sparred with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at an oversight hearing last spring on the agency’s fiscal 2017 budget request. She was angry that the service had not included funding in the request to complete the young-growth inventory (E&E DailyMarch 9).

Murkowski said at the hearing that without a completed inventory, the Forest Service would be promulgating “a forest plan amendment that isn’t based on a strong, sound analysis and the science attached to it.”

“So the question this morning is whether or not the Forest Service will consider postponing this transition until we have a complete young-growth inventory and a financial analysis that are completed in order to determine whether or not a transition is even feasible,” she said.

Tidwell told Murkowski that the Forest Service intended to move forward with the plan, even if the inventory is not complete.

But the final ROD includes commitments to complete the ongoing inventory in partnership with the state of Alaska, and to monitor actual timber harvest levels compared to projected levels.

Click here to access documents related to the Tongass National Forest land and resource management plan amendment.

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