Audubon: Implications of Pending Tongass National Forest Land Selections on Forest Diversity

Thank you to reader David Beebe for passing along this new report from Alaska Audubon titled, “High‐grading on the Tongass National Forest: Implications of Pending Land Selections on Forest Diversity.”  The entire Audubon report is available here.  I’ve pasted the report summary below, although that’s also available in PDF form here, with the citations included. – mk

UPDATED:  Paul Olson from Sitka, Alaska (who has been a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska since the 1970s and is the board president of a new regional organization called the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community) provided some excellent context in the comments section that deserves to be highlighted here:

“This legislation is also relevant to the issues you discuss in the ‘collaboration’ blog since the current version of the bill is largely the result of negotiations between a subdivision of a Forest Service initiated ‘collaborative’ group, the Tongass Futures Roundtable. That secretive subdivision is known as the “Devil’s Club” and has been primarily responsible for persistent but to date unsuccessful efforts to rezone public lands on the Tongass National Forest for the primary benefit of private timberland owners. That collaborative group has all the characteristics of a typical collaborative stewardship group – it meets during the day when the working public cannot attend its deliberations; most of the NGO stakeholders had funding funneled to them as a result of high level Forest Service efforts; the participating environmental group representatives are for the most part inexperienced imports from distant lands or otherwise “soft” on certain types of resource development….”

Read Paul Olson’s entire comment here.
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Coastal temperate rainforests of the world occur in only ten areas, are extremely rare, and account for less than 3% of all forest cover on earth. Alaska’s Tongass National Forest contains a large portion of the world’s last remaining old‐growth rainforest. Regarded widely as the “crown jewel” of the national forest system, the Tongass is home to the bulk of America’s remaining old‐growth forest.

Over the last century, the Alaska timber industry has focused logging on the largest and most valuable old‐growth trees of the Tongass. This controversial practice is referred to as “high‐grading” and has already eliminated half or more of the very large‐tree stands on the Tongass. The very biggest trees, the ancient giants greater than 10 feet in diameter that can grow for many centuries, have largely been cut and eliminated from the forest.

Today, the remaining stands of very large‐tree old growth are extremely rare and account for only 0.5 percent (82,000 acres) of the 16.8 million‐acre Tongass. Known as volume class 7, these remnant stands are not only visually impressive but also provide important habitat for five species of Pacific salmon, Steelhead, brown bear, black bear, wolves, Sitka black‐tailed deer, river otter, marten, flying squirrel, Bald Eagle, Marbled Murrelet, Northern Goshawk and other wildlife.

Congress has long‐recognized the problem of high‐grading and took specific action to eliminate this practice of logging “a disproportionate amount of old growth timber” on the Tongass as part of the Tongass Timber Reform Act enacted in 1990.  Some twenty years later, however, the Sealaska Corporation is seeking legislation (S 730/HR 1408) that threatens a return to high‐grading of the largest and most profitable trees. If enacted, the legislation would eliminate a substantial portion of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth forest on the Tongass.

S 730/HR 1408 would re‐open the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 to give the Sealaska Corporation the unprecedented ability to select and obtain highly valuable public lands in the Tongass containing extremely disproportionate quantities of very large‐tree old‐growth timber. The legislation would permit a 12‐fold increase in the Sealaska Corporation’s logging of very large‐tree old growth. The legislation would also authorize Sealaska Corporation to obtain some the most popular public lands in the Tongass in hundreds of smaller parcels scattered throughout the forest that are currently open to the public for fishing, hunting, and recreation.

Signed into law in 1971, ANCSA is the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, andwas enacted with strong bi‐partisan support to resolve all aboriginal land claims in Alaska. Under existing ANCSA law, Sealaska Corporation has already made its final land selections within the Tongass. S 730/HR 1408 would give Sealaska Corporation approximately 65,000 acres in new public lands for logging and development outside of areas where the corporation’s existing selections have been made.

To evaluate the impact S 730/HR 1408, Audubon Alaska mapped each of the proposed new timber selections using a US Forest Service forest cover database.

Key report findings include:

• Following decades of controversial logging involving “high grading” (i.e., logging that targets the largest and most valuable old‐growth trees) the remaining stands of very large‐tree old‐growth (class 7) are extremely rare. These stands account for only 0.5 percent or ~ 82,000 acres of the 16.8 million‐acre Tongass National Forest.

• S. 730/HR 1408 would enable Sealaska Corporation to clearcut vastly greater amounts of highly valuable very large‐tree old growth than under current law. Public lands that would be transferred to Sealaska Corporation contain up to 12 times more acres of very large‐tree old growth than occurs on the lands the corporation has already selected under current ANCSA law.

• The public lands that would be obtained by Sealaska Corporation include a significant portion of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth in the Tongass. These highest‐volume large‐tree stands account for only 1.6 percent of productive old growth on the Tongass as a whole but make up 24‐27 percent of the lands Sealaska Corporation seeks under S 730/HR1408.

• Under S 730/HR 1408 Sealaska Corporation could clearcut up to 17 percent of the last remaining very large‐tree old growth (class 7) on the Tongass.

• Public lands that Sealaska Corporation would obtain under S 730/HR 1408 are far more valuable than the corporation’s existing land selections and include approximately $50 million worth of taxpayer‐funded infrastructure and other investments (e.g., roads, trails, bridges, transfer sites, fish habitat restoration projects).

S 730/HR 1408 would result in the permanent loss of a substantial portion of the remaining very large‐tree old growth on the Tongass National Forest. This loss would be additive to the logging of any other large‐tree old growth resulting from U.S. Forest Service timber sales, with long‐term impacts on forest diversity and associated wildlife habitat.

7 Comments

  1. S. 730 is probably the most sinister corporate earmark to ever be considered by the US Senate. If the snakeoil salesmen from Sealaska had not funded Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign, this bill would have been dead last year.

  2. Right on! There have been several recent high-grading alternatives proposed for the Tongass. The last one being the Sealaska legislation discussed above. Prior high-grading was proposed under the auspices of the Tongass Futures Roundtable — for which I participated. That forum which is largely underwritten by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Wilberforce Foundations and others, proposed high-grading and privatizing Tongass National Forest lands on Prince of Wales Island. The primary beneficiary was one medium size sawmill. In turn, 1.8 million acres of de-facto wilderness was proposed under the name of wildlife habitat protection. However, many of the new wilderness areas were not at risk from logging and that some of the very best habitat on POW that was set aside to prevent an ESA listing would have been sacrificed. The full implications of this backroom trade never went public. This was because the Tongass Futures Roundtable forum is private and is still not subject to the public participation process for federal lands. The name of the backroom forest-wide rezoning was called the Devil’s Club. When it failed it morphed into a successor called the Wild Idea. When the Wild Idea also faded away it is now resurrected and being sold as the 77 Watersheds (Trout Unlimited). Because none of these proposals are remotely feasible as stand alone legislation, they have been tied to the Sealaska legislation. However, that legislation has been so controversial, that Senators Murkowski and Begich have refused to hold congressional field hearings in Alaska. In fact, the only hearing open to the general public was one held by a local club — the Territorial Sportsmen. What this means is that if the legislation goes forward it will be by attaching to a Wilderness Omnibus bill or some unrelated legislation. By the way, Sealaska Corp is generally credited in saving Senator Murkowski from certain defeat in her last election.

  3. thank you Matt for posting this. This legislation is also relevant to the issues you discuss in the “collaboration” blog since the current version of the bill is largely the result of negotiations between a subdivision of a Forest Service initiated “collaborative” group, the Tongass Futures Roundtable. That secretive subdivision is known as the “Devil’s Club” and has been primarily responsible for persistent but to date unsuccessful efforts to rezone public lands on the Tongass National Forest for the primary benefit of private timberland owners.

    That collaborative group has all the characteristics of a typical collaborative stewardship group – it meets during the day when the working public cannot attend its deliberations; most of the NGO stakeholders had funding funneled to them as a result of high level Forest Service efforts; the participating environmental group representatives are for the most part inexperienced imports from distant lands or otherwise “soft” on certain types of resource development – for example old growth logging under Alaska’s state rules so long as there is some big W wilderness or similar set-aside that they could get in exchange. And, of course, the group has no public accountability for its activities. The result has been a one-sided piece of legislation that ostensibly “protects” areas that are otherwise safe from further logging through the 2001 Roadless Rule, Forest Service conservation set-asides, or, for the most part, the simple fact that most of the remaining commercial timber on the Tongass is of such low value or faces such high extraction costs that it is poor business even with a generous public subsidy. Collaborative proponents of solutions that “improve” the bill have repeatedly ignored requests by affected communities to reconsider their “sacrifice zones” and have also ignored the significant economic impacts on the outfitter guide industry that are likely to occur through some of the more obscure but critical language that privatizes other portions of the Tongass for non-timber uses.

    The Sealaska Corporation could have easily accepted their remaining selections and went through the existing administrative land exchange process if there was any real need to do a trade. But instead through the Tongass Futures Roundtable “collaboration” they have felt emboldened to carry on with this charade – I would add at incredible expense to their shareholders, who actually receive but a pittance from the corporation’s timber activities while bearing the multi-million dollar expense of pushing this legislation year after year.

    It would seem appropriate for the Senate, led by Bingaman, to investigate the public process for this bill, and the Forest Service’s role in the Roundtable and then hold meaningful public hearings in southeast Alaska prior to taking this up again. Alaska’s congressional delegation is driven by the timber industry’s needs in SE Alaska (about 2 -4% of the resource dependent economy, including Wilderness advocates who now seem to outnumber loggers thanks to Roundtable money) to the exclusion of the rest of the resource dependent economy (96 – 98% fishing, hunting and tourism). As a result, past hearings have often come in the form of panels of self-appointed “stakeholders.” Although the Forest Service has understandably done a decent job of raising concerns about the bill – after all, there are several ESA petitions pending and whether the species are listed as threatened or endangered is intertwined with its outcome – the agency truly bears the responsibility for creating the conditions that led to this recurring and divisive legislation in the first place.

  4. Thank you Matthew, for helping to examine a little more closely, what is being called collaboration on the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s crown jewel of the national forest system. Most people have no idea it’s a coastal temperate rainforest with up to 80,000 acres of which, stand to be transferred to a native corporation.

    Ever since the arrival of the Tongass Futures Roundtable(TFR), it quickly became apparent TFR was destined to become a poster child of just how manipulated the collaboration model can be.

    There is a good reason to collaborate on resolving persistent conflicts on national forest lands. However with the Sealaska bill (S.730) as a primary issue at the TFR it has only generated far more conflict than the pre-TFR era. As a primary launching pad for place based legislation on the Tongass, one can begin to appreciate just how rigged the TFR collaboration game is. For example, the strict prohibition of recording of any kind of the plenary sessions, and the details of TFR “stakeholder” representation, in which, the fine print reveals some voting members are supposedly only representing themselves, even though the organization they work for follows their name in the membership roster.

    What is now occurring behind the scenes is very troubling.Trout Unlimited ( a well-funded national booster of collaboration) is marketing their “Tongass 77″ salmon watershed protection campaign, which over time, could be used as a QPQ for passage of Sealaska’s S.730 in an omnibus bill. This outcome would throw several rural communities on record opposing S.730 under the (omni)bus.

  5. Pingback: Pandora’s Box: “The Southeast Alaska Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act” « A New Century of Forest Planning

  6. Most of the other bills included in the omnibus lands bill sound like they have local support, the Sealaska bill on the other hand has wide local opposition in Southeast Alaska, and has only gotten more divisive the longer this is dragged out. Our communities have been put on hold for 7 years now, fighting this legislation every year, never knowing if the old growth we worked so hard to save for decades will be given away to a private corporation for short term profit. Much of this old growth included in this legislation is on limestone karst, particularly hard hit by logging. Currently protected by the National Cave Resource Protection Act , this unique and internationally recognized resource will be destroyed before it is even fully researched. Fish streams in karst landscapes are heavily impacted by logging, buffer strips do not work as debris and silt are carried for miles by the heavy rains of Southeast, through the heavily fractured and porous limestone. This is the only place in the world where this quality of karst is found in a temperate rain forest. All other examples, of which there are only about 3, occur in the tropics. These forests are unique in many ways and deserve permanent protection, not to be given away to a private corporation.

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