Tongass Bellwether: Dargon Point Timber Sale
Sustainable young-growth timber industry shows early promise
Old growth Tongass covered in moss and lichen amongst second growth timber.
© John Hyde/AlaskaStock.com
Dargon Point lies on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island at the southernmost tip of Alaska. In recent months, a stand of trees near this isolated rainforest coastline has become a bellwether on the Tongass National Forest.
The US Forest Service first stipulated its plans to develop a young-growth forest industry on the Tongass as far back as twenty-five years ago. But the matter of precisely when the Tongass National Forest should begin its shift away from logging old-growth forests has been a hotly contested question.
So when federal foresters marked out a first-of-its-kind fifty-eight-acre timber sale in a young-growth forest on Dargon Point, it drew more than a little curiosity from timber industry observers.
Most timber watchers seemed to expect little interest from an industry that has remained—unique among the world’s softwood-producing regions—dependent on old-growth trees.
If the industry’s enthusiasm for the Dargon Point timber sale is any indication, those early doubts appear to have been turned on their head.
“I’m amazed that it attracted the bids that it did,” says Forrest Cole, supervisor for the Tongass National Forest. “It definitely shows the promise for second growth.”
The 4.5 million board-foot Dargon Point sale sparked an entrepreneurial buzz, drawing four bids instead of the normal one or two.
“We went conservative on the appraisal because we weren’t sure how people would value the second growth,” says Stan McCoy, the supervisory forester for the Thorne Bay and Craig timber zones.
That incentive appears to have been unnecessary: the high bid of nearly $800,000 came in at 81 percent over appraisal.
Adding value to rough-sawn board such as these at the Good Faith Lumber mill in Thorne Bay, Alaska is expected to generate more income for the forest products industry. “We believe that when we look at jobs, high-value-added is the way to go,” said Greg Boyd, an owner of Good Faith Lumber. “Anytime we put wood in a kiln or do any tooling, the price goes up. You end up putting more people to work on the same wood. That’s the beauty of it.”
‘Great quality wood’
Clarence Maxey began working in the woods on Alaska’s Afognak Island when he was still a teen. Today he owns Frontier, Inc., the firm that put up the winning bid at Dargon Point. (As of press time, the contract was still under routine review and wasn’t officially awarded.) When Maxey first walked the forest at Dargon Point, he liked what he discovered there.
“I was just amazed at the uniformity of the trees, the height; the volume per acre is just amazing. That’s a quality stand of timber that just grew back naturally,” he says by phone from his office in Idaho. “It probably has five times the volume per acre as what they took off in old-growth back seventy years ago. We’re talking maybe 2 percent defect, versus old-growth being closer to 60 to 70 percent defect.”
While the strength of the domestic market for young-growth wood may still hold some uncertainty, he welcomes the shift.
“We’re interested in all timber, whether it’s young growth or old growth,” he says. “We prefer the size of the timber in the second growth because it’s easier to manage and handle. I’ve cut old-growth timber and people have got misconceptions about old-growth timber. I’ll just be honest with you: old-growth timber is not a six-foot in diameter spruce every other tree. I mean it’s a bunch of punky, rotten hemlock, broken off red cedar snags, and every once in a while you’re going to run across a nice big Sitka spruce. The majority of the timber is rotted and over mature.”
Maxey’s business has built secure export markets in Asia. Under the terms of the sale, half of the harvest is eligible for export to such markets as raw logs. Terms call for local processing on the remainder.
When Maxey walked the forest at Dargon Point, a grandson engaged in the family business joined him. While Maxey’s company is interested in current prospects like Dargon Point, he knows the best opportunity on the Tongass lies with his grandson’s generation.
“He’s thirty-three, so by the time a lot of this big volume comes on line it will be perfect for him,” he says.
© Bethany Goodrich
Good Faith Lumber, of Thorne Bay, Alaska, is a new generation of sawmill that has been successful in finding new markets for value-added wood products.
Local Mill Ideas
The Good Faith Lumber mill at Thorne Bay, a logging camp-turned-town on Prince of Wales Island, represents a new generation sawmill. Purchased in 2012, it’s tailored to fit the era of the Tongass forest’s transition toward more environmentally sustainable young-growth logging.
“The notion that we’re going to be able to cut old-growth here forever is fictitious. We’ve accepted that,” says Greg Boyd, a partner in the mill from nearby Craig, Alaska. “We’re actually gearing ourselves for young growth being a big component.”
Good Faith’s bid on the Dargon Point sale came in second. Bids from Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska regional Native Corporation, and Klawock’s Viking Lumber, the region’s largest sawmill, were third and fourth, respectively.
Boyd remains optimistic about opportunities for smaller mills like Good Faith Lumber as the forest shifts to offering more young growth timber sales.
“We don’t feel we could ever satisfy the demand. There’s plenty of opportunity for everybody,” Boyd says.
He maintains that the young growth industry won’t reach its potential immediately, nor will it attain the scale of the region’s earlier timber era.
“We won’t be able to cut it in the amounts that we have in the past,” says Boyd, who’s more concerned with a sustainable future for Prince of Wales Island, where he’s a long-term resident.
“I want to see all the small little mills have wood available. I think it’s better for our economy to have a lot of small mills operating because generally speaking the money stays in the community and that’s good for everybody,” he says.
Good Faith Lumber launched in 2012 and is poised to begin manufacturing a range of products from young-growth trees from the Tongass National Forest. “We don’t feel we could ever satisfy the demand. There’s plenty of opportunity for everybody,” said Greg Boyd, a mill owner who lives in Craig, Alaska.
This differs from the economic model under which timber was first developed in the Tongass.
“I have to say it was very short-sighted thinking. Unfortunately a lot of really beautiful timber got turned into pulp,” he says.
Good Faith Lumber expects most of its future timber supply to come from the Tongass National Forest, which comprises 80 percent of the land base in Southeast Alaska. Products such as house logs, molding, beveled siding, D-log siding, and cedar for custom hot tubs have been well received by a range of customers, Boyd says.
A future industry tailored to a young-growth harvest will require some mill retooling and new efficiencies. A traditional sawmill saw blade cuts a kerf measuring as much as five-sixteenths of an inch.
“That makes for a lot of sawdust, a lot of wasted wood,” Boyd says. “Today, you can take a lot thinner blade and get the same result.”
Ultimately, Boyd says Good Faith has an optimistic outlook on the future of the region’s transformed timber industry.
“We believe that when we look at jobs, high-value-added is the way to go,” he adds. “Anytime we put wood in a kiln or do any tooling, the price goes up. You end up putting more people to work on the same wood. That’s the beauty of it.”
As the Tongass National Forest transitions toward more management of its lands and waters, it is restoring key salmon streams, such as Twelvemile Creek on Prince of Wales Island.
Guiding a ‘Tongass Transition’
Last summer, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the federal government’s official policy on the long-debated “Tongass Transition.” While short on specifics, the memo called for a ten to fifteen year transition away from old-growth timber harvest and “towards a forest industry that utilizes second-growth—or young-growth—forests. Moreover, we must do this in a way that preserves a viable timber industry that provides jobs and opportunities for residents of Southeast Alaska.”
The official memo also stated that at the end of this timeframe, the vast majority of timber sold by the Tongass would be young growth. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture has invested in a range of alternative economic development opportunities including recreation, tourism, and fishing. (The region’s seventeen thousand miles of salmon streams supply 30 percent of the state’s commercial salmon harvest.)
These economic opportunities include habitat restoration. The agency has been working with partners such as The Nature Conservancy to restore salmon streams and forests.
“An exciting story in the transition is the fact that there is an opportunity to improve fish and wildlife habitat and grow a second-growth industry,” says Keith Rush, the Conservancy’s conservation forester.
The harvest of young-growth trees can help benefit fish and wildlife by creating openings in unnaturally dense forest canopies. This allows light to reach the forest floor and ushers a cascade of regeneration: plants such as blueberries can return to the forest, followed by foraging deer.
Since last summer’s memo, the Tongass National Forest has determined that the current forest plan would need to be amended in order to meet the secretary’s transition timeline. Revising the plan is important because it dictates where future timber harvests, among other forest uses, can occur—allowing for a more swift transition to young growth.
Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole reports the forest’s acreage includes 450,000 acres of harvested stands —many of these acres on highly productive and quickly regenerating sites. When young growth forests on all private and state lands are factored in, the total will be considerably larger. Stands of young growth on more remote Heceta Island and Kosiusko Island are next in line.
“They are looking and having similar characteristics as Dargon Point,” Cole says. “We’re going to have a few thousand acres show up immediately.”
The pace of the original timber harvest can be charted in a perfect boom-and-bust bell curve—the challenge for forest managers is to avoid replicating that trajectory as the young-growth forest industry develops.
“There’s this huge bubble that occurs. In order to keep a sustained supply, you’re going to need to flatten out that bubble,” Cole says.
The future of the Tongass is not completely scripted. To help guide the forest’s transition, the Tongass recently sought applicants for its Tongass Advisory Committee. Its newly named members represent four forest user groups: the Alaska Native community, timber industry, conservation, and government. The committee’s first session is scheduled for August 6-8 in Ketchikan.
Cole said he hopes the citizens’ advisory committee can reach agreements that help guide the Tongass transition, adding: “I think the future of the industry is upon us as long as we can make it socially acceptable to make it happen.”
Dustin Solberg manages communications for The Nature Conservancy in Cordova, Alaska.
Posted: August 1, 2014