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Tongass Timber Program

Rational, economic transition needed

Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

© R.E. Johnson/AlaskaStock.com

We need a rational, economic transition to a young-growth timber program on the Tongass.

Many private timberland owners use a net present value calculation to identify the optimal economic age to harvest their timber. Some long-term assumptions must be made to do the analysis—future interest rates, future timber values, future management costs, etc., but this is a good method of determining when to most profitably harvest private timber.

The issue is more complex on public lands, especially national forest lands. Public timber can be managed profitably to maximize timber harvest opportunities, and many State forests are managed this way, but our national forests must be managed in compliance with the laws and the intent of Congress.

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed the US President to set aside lands as national forests. In 1897, Congress passed the Forest Management Act, which specified the purpose of the reserves was to preserve a water supply, preserve the forests, and provide a continuous supply of timber “for the use and necessities of the citizens of the United States.”

The Tongass National Forest was established in 1908, and by 1934 government foresters had completed the first growth and yield tables for the Tongass. These yield tables allowed foresters to measure the potential sustained-yield of timber from the forest, after which the agency began planning a timber sale program that would foster a permanent, year-round timber manufacturing economy for the people in Southeast Alaska.

The transition to young-growth harvesting has always been part of the timber sale program—it just takes time to get there. Initially the Forest Service planned to manage most of the better growing sites for timber production while still maintaining stream buffers, research areas, and a few wilderness reserves. Some of the timber mills in the Pacific Northwest viewed the Tongass as a potential wood-basket for their mills, but Southeast Alaska communities wanted the timber to remain in Alaska to support local timber manufacturing. The agency thus began selling timber with the stipulation that the timber be processed locally. The agency collected stumpage payments for the timber and used some of those receipts to insure prompt regeneration of the harvested areas. The Forest Service plan included a transition to young-growth after about one hundred years because that would maximize the growth potential of the land, which is a smart thing to do.

In 1960, as many people began to place greater value on other amenities that the forests provide, Congress enacted the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act “to authorize and direct that the national forests be managed under principles of multiple use and to produce a sustained yield of products and services, and for other purposes.” These include clean water, recreation, fishing and hunting opportunities, and fish and wildlife habitat. These additional amenities don’t provide much direct revenue, but they are important values from the forest. In addition, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act made crystal clear that the additional uses of the forest are “supplemental to, but not in derogation of, the purposes for which the national forests were established as set forth in the Act of June 4, 1897.”

In 1969, Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act, followed in 1976 by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). These laws direct the Forest Service to periodically prepare management plans for each national forest and concurrently to prepare environmental impact statements to look at the environmental consequences and reasonable alternatives for those management plans. In 1980 and 1990, Congress also passed legislation specific to Alaska, designating vast new wilderness areas and promising to supply sufficient timber to preserve the existing timber industry. Unfortunately, after 1990 the promised supply of timber was not made available, causing the timber industry to decline to about a tenth of its former size.

Each time the agency has revised its management plan for the Tongass, it has increased its emphasis on non-timber amenities and reduced the amount of land available to grow and harvest timber. Prior to 1976, the agency was managing 5 million acres for timber production. After 1980, the agency planned to utilize only about 3 million acres primarily for timber production. Currently, the 2008 Tongass plan allows potential harvest on only 663,000 acres, about half of which is young-growth currently too young to harvest responsibly. Yet the current Administration is now discussing restricting the timber sale program to only the young-growth stands that are not in reserves, which total about 300,000 acres—1 percent of the acreage that was managed for timber production prior to 1990. This Administration’s young-growth transition proposal is all about politics; it is not about a balanced, multiple-use plan for the Tongass.

In order to support a viable timber manufacturing industry, there must be sufficient timber supply to allow each manufacturing facility (e.g. sawmill, veneer mill, fiberboard plant, etc.) to amortize the cost of the facility and make a profit. There must also be sufficient economy of scale (supply of timber) to allow a group of manufacturing facilities to specialize and capture the highest value from the diverse timber that grows in the region; otherwise the industry would not be able to compete in the wood products markets.

The current federal Administration has proposed accelerating the transition to young-growth with a goal of ending all old-growth harvesting over the next ten to fifteen years, but the current young-growth acreage is simply insufficient to sustain a timber supply for a viable young-growth manufacturing industry. Both Washington and Oregon do have viable young-growth industries, but they also have 8 and 10 million acres of State and private timber respectively, most of which is young-growth. These two states also contain about 20 million acres of national forest timberland. Further, if the young-growth trees are cut twenty to thirty years prior to maturity as the current Administration is proposing, then the amount of volume harvested from each acre will be half or less than of what it will be at maturity, thus making the prospect of transitioning to young-growth manufacturing even more improbable and imprudently wasting a natural resource that belongs to the American people. The Forest Service invested our tax dollars in the young-growth forest, and harvesting the trees before they reach maturity would preclude us from achieving our anticipated return on investment.

A typical mid-size, old-growth sawmill utilizes about 2,000 acres of timber annually and employs about a hundred people in the mill and a similar number of people in the woods. The high-value lumber that is produced from old-growth trees is necessary to cover the cost of constructing access roads into these remote, mountainous areas as well as the cost of harvesting and manufacturing and shipping finished products to market.

In contrast, young-growth timber is coarse-grain wood fiber that is not suitable for the higher-value products that can be produced from old-growth timber. In order to be profitable, small-log mills (spaghetti mills in sawmill lingo) must be highly mechanized (fewer jobs) and, even in areas where the road systems are already in place, these mills must process much larger volumes of lumber to compensate for the lower lumber values. These modern small-log mills are also very costly ($75 to $100 million). It is doubtful if any private investors would make such an investment without an adequate long-term timber contract to insure they could operate long enough to amortize their investment.

NFMA prohibits the harvest of national forest timber prior to the timber reaching 95 percent of its maximum growth potential (about ninety to one hundred years on the Tongass). The bulk of the young-growth timber in Southeast Alaska is less than sixty years old, so compliance with the NFMA prohibition on premature harvest of young-growth means a significant transition to young-growth would take at least another thirty years.

The good news is that by complying with NFMA and honoring the promises Congress made to sustain our communities and our industry, we can have viable timber manufacturing businesses for the next thirty years, at which time there will be more young-growth acreage, the existing young-growth stands will have doubled or tripled in volume, and the young-growth trees will be much larger and more valuable for the sawmills than they are now.

This plan would leave more than 80 percent of the old-growth timber untouched (90 percent if we count the 4 million acres of non-commercial, old-growth timberlands on the forest). That would be a rational, economic plan for the Tongass, one that is more consistent with the intent of Congress for our public lands. Multiple use management is, after all, the law on the Tongass, as it is on all national forests.

Owen Graham is the Executive Director of the Alaska Forest Association.

This first appeared in the August 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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