A (Second-Growth) Cabin in the Woods
Tongass pilot project explores value-added forest products
This summer, a crew of carpenters is at work on a cabin in a quiet Alaska town. It’s an Alaska dream cabin, with unique hand-crafted joinery and big windows offering stupendous views. It’s also something more: This home—and the wood of which it is built—is on the leading edge of an emerging economic opportunity: second-growth restoration forestry in Southeast Alaska.
“The thing about this project, it demonstrates that there are ways to utilize second-growth. The possibilities are definitely there,” says Bill Thomason, who, with his wife, Carolyn, owns a small sawmill business called Woodcuts in the town of Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island.
The Thomasons say the story of this home began long before they hammered the first nail. It begins in the Tongass National Forest at a place known as Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales Island. This is where the Thomasons and their crew cut the Sitka spruce logs over the course of three summers. They hauled them to his log yard, where the logs were piled neatly before they were milled into squared-off building timbers. The Thomasons then shipped by barge the materials for this 1,000-square-foot log cabin, custom-built for a family on a quiet road in the town of Gustavus.
The Thomasons have emerged as pioneers in the second-growth industry in the Tongass, though their interest is straightforward: creating business opportunity.
“We don’t see ourselves as trailblazers,” he says. “We’re just doing what we need to do.”
And that has them developing a specific niche: milling specialty products from young-growth trees in areas of the Tongass National Forest that were first logged many decades ago. In addition to custom designed cabins, their product list includes flooring, trusses, beveled siding, molding—and all manner of requests.
Where the Log Cabin Begins
The Tongass is the nation’s largest national forest and it’s home to some of the nation’s biggest trees. Like a great cathedral, these forests can inspire. The Tongass National Forest is laced with salmon streams, and these waters, incredibly, produce almost one-third of the U.S. commercial wild salmon catch.
The Tongass also produces prized wood: yellow cedar, western red cedar, western hemlock, and lastly, Sitka spruce, commonly used for lumber but also a strong and lightweight material that, in the era before aluminum, was used in airplane construction. Luthiers build guitars and other stringed instruments from clear-grained panels milled from Sitka spruce, and these choice trees are known as musicwood.
Tools of the trade.
Photo © 2012 Sean Nielson
Keeping these forests and streams healthy while sustaining a local timber industry requires a balanced approach to forestry. The timber industry has had a prominent role in the development of Southeast Alaska over the last half-century. Logging in old-growth forests brought jobs and more people to this remote region of Alaska, but early timber practices weren’t always sound. Until the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, forests were often logged right to the edge of salmon streams. In 1990, 471 million board feet of timber was harvested on the Tongass. Present harvest averages around 35 million board feet per year. Now, an increasing focus on watershed health and second-growth forest management in the Tongass is leading to a more diverse use of the forest as well as jobs for local people and better fish and wildlife habitat.
A Test of Forest Economics
The Winter Harbor project yielded more than logs for a cabin. In fact, you might say this cabin began as an afterthought. Its logs are, after all, a useful byproduct of a wildlife habitat restoration project designed to bring sunlight—the all-important ingredient for life—back to the floor of this second-growth forest.
For the Tongass, Winter Harbor served as a pilot project for a future second-growth management regime. With tens of thousands of acres of second-growth forest in the Tongass awaiting thinning in coming decades, it prompts questions about future restoration. What will a retooled industry look like? How to get products to market?
The Winter Harbor project—by generating a value-added product from a forest thinning—helps the Tongass and the industry plan for the future, says Jason Anderson, who served as Thorne Bay district ranger during the Winter Harbor project.
“By no means will there be a single model that works in any one place,” he says. “It’s going to take the kind of creativity and risk-taking that the Thomasons have taken.”
In this instance, this approach allowed for a unique partnership: Thomasons’ business received marketable timber, and the U.S. Forest Service was able to test forest thinning methods. A unique contracting option, known in the Forest Service as a “stewardship contract,” was key to making the project work. It allowed the Forest Service to specify certain conditions that increased the utility of the Winter Harbor project, such as testing the efficacy of mechanical harvesting equipment. Commonly used in tree thinning operations elsewhere in North America and beyond, such equipment could be important to a future industry seeking to compete in a global second-growth market.
“The exciting story in the transition is the fact that there is an opportunity to improve wildlife habitat and grow a second-growth industry,” says Keith Rush, the Nature Conservancy’s conservation forester in Alaska. “The industry will need to be retooled to accommodate this, of course. You’re not only going to retool mills, but harvesting equipment, transportation equipment and markets as well. Everything will need to be retooled for the transition to work.
Habitat Limits of Second-Growth Forest
There are differences between second-growth forests and the old-growth forests they replace, and these include more than the size of the trees.
“The regeneration in Southeast Alaska is prolific,” Rush says. “Trees grow back naturally. No replanting is required.”
Mallet for dove-tailed joinery.
Photo © 2012 Sean Nielson
And therein lies the challenge.
“The trees grow so thick, the crowns of the trees will intersect each other and this stops sunlight from penetrating to the forest floor,” Rush says.
Several thousand trees can spring up in the space of a single acre. (That’s nearly as large as a football field, not including the end zones.) In contrast, the open mosaic of an old-growth forest may have just 100 trees in the same space.
So when a forester cruises a forest with an eye for restoring it, he’s thinking like a windstorm. Why a windstorm? In the wet forests of the Tongass, unlike the more arid forests of the American West, death comes not by fire, but by wind. “Mortality happens,” Rush says. “Clumps of trees will get blown over by wind. That’s the primary agent of change in Southeast.”
The return of sunlight ushers in a cascade of healthy changes in the second-growth forests of the Tongass. It warms the forest soil, where a bank of dormant seeds lies in wait. Shrubs like blueberries and an array of wildflowers spring to life once light returns, creating food for Sitka black-tailed deer. The deer, in turn, are prey for the Alexander Archipelago wolf. Harvesting deer is an important part of subsistence tradition for local families. In short, restoring sunlight to the forest floor contributes to a dynamic food web in which each member has a role.
Change is in the Air
As these even-aged stands of forest mature, their dense canopies will gradually block out sunlight. In areas where a high percentage of the forest is in young-growth stands, species such as deer will find less forage.
People will need to be involved in bringing back forest habitat, and this will yield timber for market. The time to start gearing up for the transition toward logging second-growth is now, Rush says.
“In a couple decades, there will be thousands of acres of stands that will be a similar age to the Winter Harbor stand. You’ve got to get things figured out before then. The project that produced the logs for this cabin helps do that,” Rush says.
Tongass in Transition
The Tongass National Forest has already begun a transition toward logging and managing young-growth forests for a range of values. The agency is paying more attention to protecting and improving vital fish and wildlife habitat, and creating jobs via a more diversified and stable economy. The second-growth forest resource is key to this transition.
“There certainly are uses out there and Bill and Carolyn’s project has proven that,” Anderson says. He considers it one sector among many in the region’s future economic landscape. “It’s going to take a diverse approach. And each diverse sector may be, in fact, rather small.”
Efforts to create a more diverse and sustainable local economy are supported by local residents seeking jobs and a more stable economy.
“Jobs need to be dependable so that people feel like they can buy a home and raise their families here,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Prince of Wales Island field representative, Michael Kampnich, a logger-turned-commercial fisherman who raised his family on Prince of Wales Island. “We have a real opportunity here. I believe the best days of the industry may still be in front of us.”
Writer Dustin Solberg manages communications for the Alaska Field Office of The Nature Conservancy (nature.org/alaska) from Cordova, Alaska.