What’s Going on in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest? Why? Guest Post by Jim Furnish

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 . . .”

9 thoughts on “What’s Going on in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest? Why? Guest Post by Jim Furnish”

  1. ‘As Trump often says, “We’ll see what happens . . .”’

    We already know what happens Jim, and it is not pretty –neither socially, nor economically, nor culturally, nor CERTAINLY environmentally.

    The arbitrary framing of these categories as somehow separate from each other normalizes the fiction necessary to keep the matter confined to “jobs,” “loggers against environmentalists” and other means of the directly-imposed divide and conquer strategies.

    So let’s get real: Alaska has always been an export colony ever since the Russians decided to “own”, spiritually convert, and enslave its indigenous populations for its own self-serving benefit, then “sell” its “possession” to US for a quick buck — in order for “US” to do the exact same thing.

    Root cause analysis leads to one, and only one, legitimate conclusion as to properly categorize the past and current Tongass timber program. One might call it the “Power Law” of mathematics absent the wisdom necessary to avoid ecocide.

    Among, (but not all inclusive) of your official narrative fairy tales:

    1) the 50 year pulp contracts were, “intended to assist in Japan’s recovery from WWII.” (LOL) and,

    2)”Today, Tongass-dependent timber industry in SE Alaska hangs by a thread;” (so what would happen IF THE THREAD “BROKE” Jim? We know: we would “lose” one percent of the regional economy. But does it even qualify as an “economy” if it results in exploding federal deficits and untold (unaccounted) negative externalities, not the least of which is the unquantifiable costs of climate catastrophe?

    3)”the forest supervisor serves as an “almost governor” for all of SE Alaska.”(as a former Deputy Chief, are you suggesting the forest supervisor’s boss is not the regional forester and the regional forester’s boss is not the Chief, and the chief’s boss is not… all the way up to the AK delegation which has enjoyed uncommon access to powerful positions dictating USFS policy, purse, and purpose? Don Young has (self-)”served” as our sole Representative in the House for 46 years alone. Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski and his appointed daughter Lisa, have (self-)”served” in the senate for most of that time as well. that’s three people covering most of AK representation for the better part of a half-century. Surely you of all people know of the criminality of the application of “Alaska Rules?”Surely, you’ve read the Washington Office Activity Review Findings of fact?)

    So Jim, you’re contradicting yourself in the same way, and for the same purposes Dominick is contradicting himself — self-serving for the money and the power absent ethics.

    These contradictions are cliche’ and easily exposed for what they are: false narratives for the feckless sycophants who need authoritative excuses.

    Ever since Teddy declared the territory of what is now Southeast Alaska and it became a “State” with an extraordinary national forest it has always been used by the Alaska delegation as a slush fund to pay off campaign debts necessary to remain in power.

    “All wealth comes from the land” (more properly the earth), and its greatest wealth cannot be measured in “dollars.”

    This is all about (predatory) “Power” and exercised with a timeworn result: collapse, just as cancer cells destroy the host body.

    My suggestion: evolve while there’s still time to acknowledge and course-correct the suicidal trajectory of these well-known tried-and-failed worldviews.

  2. What else is going on is the process by which the Tongass forest plan would changed: a “shortcut.” https://www.eenews.net/stories/1061347931

    “That approach would declare 165,000 acres of old-growth forest, as well as 20,000 acres of young growth, suitable for timber through an “administrative change” that provides limited opportunity for public comment.” Such changes are allowed for “conformance of the plan to new statutory or regulatory requirements” (36 CFR §219.13(c)), but that language should not be applicable to this situation.

    “But proponents of opening the Tongass to more timber production say the Forest Service is just reversing an earlier administrative move that went with the roadless rule. Removing the roadless rule, by extension, suggests areas previously considered unsuitable for timber should be dubbed suitable again, they said… According to the roadless proposal, the Tongass forest supervisor would be directed to make an administrative change converting the “unsuitable” acres to “suitable” if they were made off-limits solely because of the roadless rule.”

    The problem is that “if they were made off-limits solely because of the roadless rule,” the suitability process was never completed for them in the forest plan, so they can’t be just “dubbed suitable again.” Step 1 of the timber suitability analysis removes “Lands Not Suitable for Timber Production based on Legal and Technical Factors (FSH 1909.12, Section 61.1).” This included areas governed by the Roadless Rule. Step 2, for remaining lands, requires a determination of “Lands Suited and Not Suited for Timber Production Based on Compatibility with Desired Conditions and Objectives (FSH 1909.12, Section 61.2).” The desired conditions and objectives for roadless areas presumably are compatible with protecting roadless values which would not be suitable for timber production. Desired conditions and objectives are plan components, and the only way they can be created or changed is through a plan amendment or revision (36 CFR §219.13(a)). And in this case the change in circumstances would be significant enough to probably trigger a plan revision.

    • Jon, it seems to me just with a minimal knowledge that they would need to do a plan amendment, but wouldn’t that be part of the FEIS, like they wouldn’t know what areas for sure until the final and then they would do the associated amendment at the same time as part of the set of documents associated with the FEIS?

      • The FEIS is on a regulation/rule. The model used so far for roadless rules puts limits on what can be done in roadless areas. Here, following that model would remove/replace limits from designated areas, but not decide the long-term management for the areas.

        Here’s what the EIS says they are doing:
        “Alternatives 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 would result in an administrative change to the timber land suitability determinations made in the 2016 Forest Plan. Specifically, lands identified as suitable for timber production that were deemed unsuitable solely due to roadless designation in the Plan would be designated as suitable for timber production. This administrative change would apply to lands removed from the roadless inventory and to lands identified as “Community Priority” or “Timber Priority” in Alternatives 3 and 4, respectively. This change to the Tongass suitability determinations does not preclude future suitability determinations as part of Forest Plan amendment or revision processes.”

        What they are actually saying is that they intend to change plan components by making long-term management decisions in the regulation. If that’s the case, then I would argue that they can only only use an administrative correction to the forest plan if they have met NFMA requirements for changing plan components in the roadless rulemaking process (such as a range of alternatives for long-term management).

        • I’m not sure that if the “post Roadless suitability” was originally analyzed in the recent plan, they couldn’t reuse that same analysis, which was presumably good enough to meet NFMA requirements since it was a plan revision?

          • That was my first point – they didn’t fully analyze suitability in the 2016 amendment. The suitability process just threw them out because the roadless rule made them unsuitable.

  3. The initial public outcry of protest to this elimination of Roadless on the Tongass both in Alaska and the rest of the nation has been overwhelming.

    For the residents, the last 75 years of cut and run has produced an educated public: life on a plantation is miserable, and negative consequences well-documented.

    Further, it seems R-10 not only has a problem with magic number accounting methodology in their Appraisals of Record while ignoring NEPA FSH/FSM regs on their last two large timber sales, they can’t seem to get even the most basic of numbers straight in regards to when Roadless comments are due.

    (CFR DATE):
    “Comments must be received in writing by December 16, 2019.”

    (R-10 Press release date):
    “The public has until midnight Alaska time on Dec. 17, 2019, to submit comments on the documents. The documents are posted in the Federal Register and on the agency’s Alaska Roadless Rule website.”

    So while this has been distributed across news outlets nationwide, it would seem to require a re-listing in the CFR.

    Wouldn’t it Jon?

  4. The governing document is the Federal Register notice and the press release referred to that. If the press release misreported the date, they should issue a correction. Since this is an EIS comment period, the agency also has the authority to extend it to 12/17 (or later) with another Federal Register Notice. And they could also just accept late comments. I’m not recalling any similar situations where the Forest Service was “required” (legally) to do anything.

  5. Here’s E&E’s take on the Tongass situation: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1061400273

    They suggest the real motivation is found in this Forest Service statement that EIS alternatives, “incrementally increase management flexibility for how the forest plan’s timber harvest goals can be achieved.” Management flexibility is the holy grail for the Forest Service (which is of course the opposite of forest planning). The way this works is to make more area available for timber harvest without raising the volume of harvest established in the forest plan. This is different from the old ways when more acres meant a higher ASQ and pressure to achieve that with more logging. “But a status-quo timber harvest isn’t what the industry is seeking.” So we’ll see where that goes.

    The article also identifies the underlying problem: “In the background is a more fundamental question that drives the political debate: Is the Tongass a resource mainly for Alaska, favoring economic development, or for the nation at large?” Doesn’t that underly most of the issues for national forest management everywhere? My oversimplified answer is that the law is on the side of everyone, but local political power often interferes.


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