The Tongass deserves a better path forward
By Dominick A. DellaSala
Originally published 9/11/2019 at the Anchorage Daily News
In response to former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s Sept. 6 op-ed calling for a full exemption of the Tongass National Forest from roadless protections, its remarkable how much has changed since he was governor. Instead of regressing to the heyday of rampant old-growth logging, no longer acceptable in Alaska or the nation, there is a path forward that reduces controversy, sustains jobs, saves roadless areas and slows down climate chaos by transitioning to young-growth forests. And as far as access issues he is concerned about, the Forest Service already has exercised its discretion to approve 67 projects in roadless areas that involved tree removal and/or road construction. So, the Trump Administration’s roadless rollbacks is completely unnecessary.
There is a better way forward to avoid the kind of global outrage now directed at massive logging in Amazonia, as both the Amazon and the Tongass play vital roles in slowing down runaway climate chaos as the planet’s “lungs.”
Thanks to funding obtained by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Forest Service already was on the path forward before the roadless distraction. The agency recently completed the most expansive young forest inventory ever on the Tongass. It inventoried over 40,000 acres of young growth, which was supplemented by field data supplied by the Geos Institute, and combined with additional inventory plots from the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. Collectively, these inventories uncovered a vast supply of young trees soon available to support an appropriately scaled forest industry without entering roadless areas or ramping up old-growth logging.
Analyzing the new data, Geos Institute identified some 138,000 acres of previously logged forests now stocked with young trees 55 to 70-years old within 800 feet of open roads and in relatively low environmental risk areas. Because of heavy logging in the past, these densely stocked young forests are poor deer habitat, but produce merchantable timber in volumes comparable to old growth logged over the last decade. By utilizing the existing road infrastructure, the industry can improve its economic efficiency by avoiding expensive road construction. Importantly, young growth stands are taller and bigger than expected (meeting Tongass Advisory Committee requirements for transition) and generate only ~2% wood product defect, compared to as much as 70% defect in old growth.
Existing mills in the region will need to retool to handle the emerging smaller-diameter young growth logs instead of old-growth logs. Capital for needed renovations could come from public and private funding. And after three years of project design and field work by the Forest Service Research Station, paid with congressional funds secured by Sen. Murkowski, the next step is to establish a young growth wood quality pilot mill to test for lumber grade recovery and market demand.
The bottom line is this – the Roadless Rule is popular in Alaska and the nation, and it’s working.
A clear path forward now exists to avoid regressive policies by jump-starting the transition to a modernized smaller-scale sustainable industry focused mainly on young growth. Opening roadless areas and ramping up old-growth logging would only increase Alaska’s climate woes and put the Tongass in the same global spotlight as the ill-advised destruction of Amazonia.
Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., is an award-winning scientist at the Geos Institute with more than 200 scientific publications, including “Temperate and boreal rainforests of the world: Ecology and conservation” (Island Press).