The Forest Service bets on second-growth logging in Alaska

But can timber still keep island communities in the Tongass afloat?

 

One damp, gray day in June, Gordon Chew, a 59-year-old carpenter, logger and small sawmill owner from the island community of Tenakee Springs, Alaska, was doing something he’s been doing a lot lately: standing inside a decades-old clear cut in the Tongass National Forest, looking around.

The Sitka spruce and western hemlock were growing back nicely, Chew noted, some bigger than expected, some smaller, the old stumps draped in moss and lichen. But like most old clear cuts in the Tongass, this one was hardly ready to log again — at least not by Chew’s standards. A woodworker himself, he’s picky about trees, cutting only the finest to sell to boat builders and artisans. “If you want a cheap two-by-four, you go to Home Depot,” he says. “If you want a fine-grained old-growth piece you can make a kayak paddle with, we’re the people to see.”

Gordon Chew's son, Sterling Chew, of Tenakee Logging Company, loads Alaska Yellow Cedars on a self-loading log truck.
Courtesy Gordon Chew
Chew’s company, Tenakee Logging, relies on old-growth timber, and Chew believes his practice of carefully selecting just a few trees — rather than razing acres of forest — keeps his business environmentally sustainable. It also keeps him afloat: the market for lower-quality second growth has already been cornered by giant lumber companies in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. There, timber companies own private land, so they can largely avoid the red tape of Forest Service sales, and their proximity to major ports and highways allows them ship and sell wood for a fraction of what it costs in Southeast Alaska. Without old growth, Alaskan loggers like Chew just couldn’t compete.


Yet old-growth logging is controversial, and in 2010, the Forest Service announced it would effectively end old-growth logging in the Tongass. In the last two decades, a combination of market forces, timber reform and environmental lawsuits have brought Southeast Alaska’s old-growth industry to its knees. Only 30 million board feet now come from the Tongass each year, compared to more than 520 million at its peak. Seven out of the region’s eight big mills have closed, and from 1998 to 2012, timber jobs declined by 80 percent. Even though other private-sector jobs grew by 7 percent, many communities are still reeling economically from the loss of timber. Larger towns like Sitka and Ketchikan have bounced back with a thriving tourism and cruise ship industry, but residents of outlying villages like Hoonah or Tenakee Springs are losing their schools, watching helplessly as full-time residents are replaced by second- and third-homeowners.

Perhaps even more important than phasing out old-growth is the second facet of the Forest Service's transition: to begin more actively supporting other economic activities like commercial fishing, tourism and recreation.

Environmentalists, tourism operators and fishermen were thrilled about the proposed support. The Tongass is the nation’s largest national forest and the most extensive block of temperate rainforest in the world; hundreds of thousands of salmon spawn in its streams and rivers  each year. “The Tongass is a salmon forest,” says Kirk Hardcastle, a fisherman from Juneau. The federal government, he contends, should long ago have begun spending more money on fisheries and less on the kind of logging that harms them. 

If old growth is no longer sustainable and second growth won’t pencil out, does it make sense to keep betting on timber?

For small business owners like Hardcastle, the Forest Service’s decision isn’t just a wonky land management issue. Thirty-two communities and more than 70,000 people live within the borders of the Tongass, which covers an area about the size of West Virginia. “The Forest Service plays a role in every aspect of life here,” says Juneau resident and Alaska Wilderness League spokesman Dan Kirkwood. “The resources that almost every local industry needs are on the Tongass. It’s the Tongass that makes the fish, and the Tongass that (tourists) come to see.”

In other words, how much money the Forest Service puts toward clear-cutting mountainsides — and how much toward maintaining trails and visitor facilities — has a direct impact on lives and livelihoods.

Tongass National Forest, near Ketchikan, Alaska shows regrowth after clear cut logging.
Royce Bair

Yet four years after the agency’s announcement, Hardcastle and others say little has changed. Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group, recently analyzed Tongass budgets and determined that the Forest Service continues to spend a disproportionate amount of its money fanning the dying flames of big timber. Though timber represents just 1 percent of the regional workforce, the agency still spends about 37 percent of its Tongass budget, or $22 million, on timber, compared to 15 percent on recreation, 7 percent on wildlife and fisheries and 6 percent on watershed protection. The agency’s priorities, says Ross Gorte, a co-author of the Headwaters report, “are inconsistent with the economic realities on the ground.”

Not only that, the report also alleges the agency isn’t making good on its commitment to phase out old-growth logging. Eighty-seven percent of Tongass timber sales over the last four years have consisted mostly of old growth, the report says. And last year, the Forest Service offered its largest timber sale in decades, a 6,000-acre parcel of old growth known as Big Thorne.

The Forest Service says that Big Thorne and other old-growth sales are necessary to tide over the industry until enough second-growth timber comes of age. (And by the “industry,” officials largely mean Southeast Alaska’s last corporate mill, Viking Lumber.) But environmental groups — including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club, which have sued to stop Big Thorne — say the timber sale will destroy the last ecologically rich stands of old growth on Prince of Wales Island and further endanger the rare Alexander Archipelago wolves. They also dismiss the Forest Service’s rationale for continuing to sell old-growth leases: A private analysis by the Oregon-based Geos Institute found in 2013 that there’s already “sufficient volume” of younger trees in the region ready for harvest.

But Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole and loggers like Gordon Chew say that’s simply not the case. The Geos report assumes timber is ready at 55 years; Cole says 80 to 120 years is more realistic. And by looking solely at budgets and numbers, he adds, Headwaters missed half the story: His team on the ground has been aggressively preparing to transition to younger growth. It’s completed 70,000 acres of stand examination, 30,000 acres of pre-commercial thinning, and has a number of young-growth sales already in the works. “I could tire you out listing the money we’ve spent on young growth,” Cole says.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie says the process just needs more time. “The idea is not to just flip a light switch and have old-growth end and second-growth immediately start,” he said at a recent press conference in Juneau. “The idea is to have a more gradual path.” Bonnie and Cole are confident that the Forest Service can finish the bulk of the transition within the next decade or so.

But though they’re investing heavily in it, Cole admits that his agency hasn’t yet identified who will buy this new second-growth, which will by necessity be more expensive than the second growth coming out of the Pacific Northwest. And therein lies the crux. If old growth is no longer sustainable and second growth won’t pencil out, does it make sense for the Forest Service to keep betting on timber?

Gordon Chew — the largest employer in a village of 100 people — hopes so. Though he may be allowed to continue some of his specialty old-growth logging, he’s not sure what the Forest Service transition will mean for him and other small-scale loggers. “I consider myself an environmentalist,” he says. “I want to be a part of this transition, this change.” But as he looks around at the spindly second-growth, he’s not sure whether he can.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News.