From Jim Furnish:
Much attention has focused on the Tongass recently (yet again) with the Trump administration’s avowed intent to scrap adjudicated roadless areas protections dating back to 2001. Some cheer, some moan. Here we go again. It is inarguable that the Tongass is the most extraordinary and unique national forest, especially in the political sense.
A brief context: TR created the Tongass in 1907 and it slumbered until the 1950s when the Forest Service established two massive 50-year contracts with Ketchikan and Alaska Pulp Companies (KPC and APC), intended to assist in Japan’s recovery from WWII. These two monopolistic entities dominated a huge logging uptick. While the Monongahela NF controversy over clearcutting is well-chronicled, a similar conflict erupted in Alaska resulting in an injunction that was also resolved by NFMA in 1976. Later, after decades of subsidized exploitation of Tongass old-growth forests, KPC and APC closed their mills in the mid-1990s and the FS canceled both contracts. Controversy has dogged industrial logging ever since, though timber harvest volumes plummeted from the 50-year provision of 13 billion bf contracted to KPC and APC to current levels of only 25-35 mmbf/yr.
Today, Tongass-dependent timber industry in SE Alaska hangs by a thread with one remaining OG mill – Viking in Craig – and a few artisanal specialty product mills. These are beset by headwinds like constant litigation, distant markets, uncertain supply, high labor costs, old technology, and now tariffs. Most tribal land logging is exported, as is up to one-half of federal log volume.
But politics exerts influence on the Tongass like no other national forest. The size of West Virginia, the Tongass “owns” nearly all lands except for the boroughs (like Juneau), thus the forest supervisor serves as an “almost governor” for all of SE Alaska. The Forest Service has an outsized influence over all affairs, which often puts them in conflict with local, state, and national elected officials who interject themselves in all manner of FS affairs. I think it’s reasonable to say that most conflicts originate with any FS pro-environment initiative, such as roadless area protection, pushing buttons of a traditionally pro-commerce Alaskan congressional delegation. Failure to tiptoe this tricky tightrope has shortened several careers.
The latest iteration involves a demand by the Obama administration that the FS all but eliminate OG logging by transitioning to now-commercial second growth. The FS produced an amended Tongass Forest Plan in 2016 granting themselves a 16-year glide path, claiming that second growth was not yet commercially viable (I strongly disagree, based on Catherine Mater’s exhaustive analysis of the FS’s own inventory data). The new Governor Dunleavy and President Trump administrations sparked a renewed effort to rescind roadless protections of about 9 million acres and pump life into a dying industry with more subsidies and more logging. Yet another Draft EIS is available for review. Agriculture Secretary Perdue favors dropping all roadless protections. As Trump often says, “We’ll see what happens . . .”