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Tongass can transition to second-growth logging in 5 years

[Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202/628-6500]

Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest could transition completely to second-growth logging within the next five years, according to a new report from an Oregon-based consulting firm.

The report by Mater Engineering Ltd. said sufficient trees are available in previously logged, roaded stands in areas the Forest Service has already designated for logging.

But the transition would require the area’s logging and manufacturing infrastructure to be upgraded to process small-diameter logs. It would also require changes to Forest Service rules to allow trees to be harvested at an earlier age.

The report was commissioned by the Geos Institute, an Ashland, Ore.-based nonprofit that aims to protect forests in the face of climate change.

“We were surprised by how much 55-year-old second-growth volume could be obtained to offset old-growth logs in the Prince of Wales region and that the transition could be notably accelerated if the administration adopts policy changes on when younger forests can be re-harvested,” said Mater Engineering consultant Catherine Mater.

Quickly phasing out old-growth logging on the 17-million-acre Tongass, one of the world’s few remaining intact temperate rainforests, could also provide a market for private landowners including the Sealaska Corp. to harvest more young growth, the report said.

The report comes as debate rages over Forest Service plans to allow limited old-growth logging to sustain local mills while it transitions to young growth. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in July issued a memo saying that within 15 years, the “vast majority” of timber harvested on the nation’s largest national forest will be young growth (Greenwire, July 5).

Conservationists argue the transition must happen more quickly, but a logging official suggested it will take roughly twice as much time for second-growth trees to be old enough to cut.

“There is clear potential to stimulate a new economic model in southeast Alaska where a viable wood products industry works side by side with ecologically sustainable tourism and fishing,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Geos Institute.

The report found a base-line volume of 15 million board feet per year is needed to establish and sustain the processing of second-growth logs in an existing, but upgraded, medium-sized sawmill in the Prince of Wales region.

The Forest Service would have to lift the so-called cumulative mean annual increment (CMAI) — which requires most trees to grow until they are 90 years old before being cut — in order to allow the harvest of 55-year stands, the report said.

Vilsack’s plan endorsed a bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would allow the Forest Service to change CMAI, allowing it to harvest second-growth timber sooner. But the bill, S. 340, is strongly opposed by conservation groups since it would convey public forests to a private corporation.

Vilsack’s plan calls for allocating more Forest Service staff and resources into planning second-growth timber sales, considering amending the forest plan to speed the transition, and supporting research into second-growth management and wood markets.

It encourages the Agriculture Department to offer financial assistance to retool mill equipment to more efficiently process younger timber and to establish a federal advisory committee to provide stakeholder input.

A primary concern of the Forest Service is the low availability of second-growth trees in a forest where industrial harvests did not begin in earnest until the 1950s.

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