SE Alaska Sustainability Strategy Ending Old Growth Logging Draws Kudos, Fire

By Margaret Bauman

A new federal Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy that will end old growth logging in Tongass National Forest by reinstating the Roadless Rule is elating fishermen and drawing fire from the timber industry.

“The Southeast Alaska ecosystem, which holds as its heart and lungs the Tongass National Forest, can be thought of one marvelous SeaBank, rich in natural capital, paying generous annual dividends, and with assets that support local jobs and a sustainable economy,” said Linda Behnken, a veteran commercial harvester and president of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka.

“The Tongass provides 95% of the 53 million salmon annually harvested by Southeast Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries, which are the cornerstone of our sustainable local economy,” Behnken said.

The Alaska Forest Association, an industry trade association in Ketchikan, adamantly disagrees with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture decision.

“AFA recognizes the immense work undertaken by U.S. Forest Service employees in the Tongass and in Region 10 during the last eight years to move forward with a commitment to supply, preserve and retain the timber industry in the Tongass,” Tessa Axelson, executive director of AFA, said in a statement.

“What a monumental loss for the USFS, the Tongass and Alaska that this work will be set aside” she said. “Professionals not politics should manage the region’s natural resources.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture strategy announced in mid-July mandates the USDA to work with partners and communities in Southeast Alaska and consult with tribes and Alaska Native corporations in a collaborative process to invest $25 million in financial and technical resources in sustainable opportunities for economic growth and community well-being and identify priorities for future investments.

The mandate of the collaborative effort is to provide opportunities for recreation, fisheries and the fishing industry, mariculture, renewable energy and sustainable timber management, including or young growth, traditional and customary cultural uses, and carbon sequestration.

In announcing the transition away from old growth logging on July 15, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his agency looked forward to meaningful consultation with communities, partners, the state, tribal governments and Alaska Native corporations to prioritize management and investments in the region that reflect a holistic approach to the region’s diverse values.

The USDA decision to halt old growth logging and road building in the nation’s largest national forest also received kudos also from conservation entities and criticism from Alaska’s congressional delegation.

“The real value of the Tongass is in its abundant fish and wildlife, its cultural resources and in its beautiful scenery and wild landscapes,” said Austin Williams, director of law and policy in Alaska for fishery protection and restoration group Trout Unlimited.

“A healthy forest is integral to the local economy with fishing and tourism making up one in four of the region’s jobs and contributing $2 billion annually to the local economy,” Williams said.

The Tongass is valuable both to the people that live here and to the rest of the world, said Mary Catharine Martin, spokeswoman for SalmonState, an entity that works to protect wild salmon habitat. The Tongass is an enormous carbon bank and reservoir, storing 44% of the carbon stored in all U.S. national forests, according to Martin.

“Some of its lowering old growth cedar, spruce and hemlock trees are more than 1,000 years old. The Tongass is home to a third of the world’s remaining old growth temperate rainforest, and most of the old growth remaining in the United States,” she stated.

The state’s congressional delegation meanwhile cited the USDA decision as a detriment to the economic future of Southeast Alaska.

Sen, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that repealing the Tongass exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule is wrong, that it will cost jobs, diminish income, keep energy prices high, and cripple the ability of communities in the region to develop a sustainable, year-round economy.

“The USDA is abandoning the science-based transition that Vilsack previously promised to ensure there would still be a small but viable timber industry in Southeast Alaska,” she said.

“The $25 million USDA will invest in communities in the region doesn’t even come close to covering the economic damage that this administration’s policies will inflict on Southeast Alaska,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

“The USDA decision,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, “sends a message that this administration does not trust Alaskans to take care of the very environment in which they lie. “USDA is dead wrong to do this to Alaska,” he said.