The future is now for the country’s largest national forest. A new era focused on sustainable young-growth management is underway on the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.
The Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, stretching some 500 miles north to south from Yakutat to Ketchikan. Its mammoth landscape of dense forest, glaciers, and mountains is larger than West Virginia and comprises more than 80 percent of the lands of Southeast Alaska.
More than 74,000 residents of Southeast Alaska rely on the forest for their lives and livelihood and the Forest Service perpetually seeks ways to best manage it. Even though 90 percent of the old-growth forests remain as they were more than 100 years ago, these stands are the most contentious component of managing the temperate coastal rainforest.
Tongass National Forest 2
Tongass National Forest 2
“For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads,” saidTongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole. “This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy.”
In an effort to move beyond these conflicts and provide for the social, economic, and ecological needs of Southeast Alaska, the Forest Service is choosing a new direction for Tongass forest management. TheTongass is transitioning to a timber program that will primarily harvest young-growth forests - areas which have been previously harvested and have now regrown. The goal, Cole said, is to create a diverse and sustainable economy for Southeast Alaska communities.
“Something had to be done to sustain the 32 communities located in Southeast Alaska,” said Cole “In some of the smaller communities a loss of just a few timber-related jobs can shut down an entire school. I visited Kake recently and was told that the unemployment rate there is 80 percent. I can’t sit back and watch these communities suffer and disappear. The majority of Southeast Alaska is public land and we have a responsibility to ensure these communities are part of the management equation. The Tongass is their home.”
Enter the young-growth transition - a process that is bringing together groups which have traditionally been at odds but are now sitting down to plan a more harmonious future.
“The Sitka Conservation Society applauds the framework for transitioning from a focus on old-growth to a future in young-growth management and the long-term responsible stewardship of our natural resources,” said Bethany Goodrich, SCS policy and ccommunications specialist. “We are working on the ground to help hasten the transition and better understand what a healthy timber program on the Tongass looks like for our forest and our communities. We want to find that sweet spot, where natural resources support a vibrant and healthy diversified economy for our communities without compromising the ecological integrity and future of our forest."
This type of support is critical, according to Tongass and Regional Forest Service leaders, as collaboration with Tribes, communities, businesses and nonprofit groups is key for a successful transition.
Local residents are also onboard with the transition. Randy Hughey, a Sitka educator and builder, pointed to the ecological benefits of thinning and harvesting from second-growth stands.
“I'm very interested in what we can do with regional woods, particularly second growth woods,”Hughey said. “In a second-growth forest, after it has been logged, it is a two species forest. It is just spruce and hemlock and that’s about all that’s in there. The forest grows up so dense that it’s a dead zone underneath. It’s not habitat for wildlife hardly at all.”
Hughey said the transition will generate multiple benefits.
“It would be good for the forest to thin it and it would be good for the economy of Southeast Alaska to create some jobs in extracting that. If there are viable products that can be made, we can improve the health of the forest, create jobs, and get some wood products on the market…all of those things are really, really good,” he said.
The Tongass Advisory Committee and an amendment to the 2008 Tongass Land Management Plan, or Forest Plan, are the primary efforts steering the transition.
The committee is taking a collaborative step Aug. 6-8 in Ketchikan, when it gathers for the first time to help guide the future of the Tongass. The committee consists of a team of fifteen people representing a diverse range of viewpoints and expertise from the conservation community, the timber industry, Alaska Native groups, and other stakeholder organizations.
The group will identify elements of a potential Forest Plan modification while ensuring important resource values of the Tongass, such as subsistence, fishing, tourism, recreation, and renewable energy, are brought to the table for discussion.
Goodrich said the transition is about being proactive rather than reactive and the Tongass Advisory Committee is about giving voice back to stakeholders who love and depend on our 17-million-acre backyard.
Cole said while the committee discusses the path forward, the Tongass must continue the mix of projects that are guided by the current Forest Plan in order to advance the transition and support the current forest products industry.
“The continuation of limited sales of old-growth timber is essential to maintain the industry until young-growth can be efficiently processed,” he said. “One of those projects is Big Thorne, which could allow for a 10-year supply of timber. It will provide stability and sustain jobs while giving sawmills an opportunity to retool to process young-growth timber and seek new markets.”
Cole believes the transition will create sustainable, resilient Southeast communities while supporting a healthy forest ecosystem for generations to come.
“We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects,” he said.
The Dargon Point project encompasses about 60 acres of road-accessible young-growth forest on Prince of Wales Island and is projected to produce about 4.5 million board feet of timber.
Next in the young-growth line is Kosciusko. The Forest Service recently kicked off the public involvement process for the Kosciusko Vegetation Management and Watershed Improvement Project on Kosciusko Island, northwest of Prince of Wales Island. The stewardship benefits of the project include enhanced wildlife and fish habitat, improved riparian areas, enriched areas around high-vulnerability karst, and invasive plant treatments.
Another young-growth project waiting in the wings is Naukati-Greater Staney, also located on Prince of Wales Island.
With the Forest Service planning more young-growth projects, the amendment process in full swing, and the advisory committee meeting in Ketchikan this week, it looks like the transition has arrived…and the future of the Tongass is now.
Photo courtesy of Mark Brennan.