Timber mills in southeast Alaska are "hanging on by their fingernails" and may disappear forever if the Forest Service does not increase harvests on the Tongass National Forest, a key senator warned yesterday.
"It feels like ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again," Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R) told Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell at a panel hearing yesterday to discuss the agency’s fiscal 2016 budget request. "It seems like we have the same conversation year after year after year about how the Forest Service is going to get the timber cut up."
Murkowski has long criticized the pace of logging in the Tongass, which has cut an average of 35 million board feet over the past several years. That’s a small fraction of the 267 million board feet of annual harvest that the agency deems is sustainable under the 2008 Tongass land-use plan.
While panel members pressed Tidwell on a range of topics pertinent to the agency’s $4.9 billion budget request — including disaster funding for wildfires and the use of new logging streamlining authority in the 2014 farm bill — Murkowski’s home forest stole much of the show at yesterday’s hearing.
Murkowski was born in Ketchikan, which is surrounded by the 17-million-acre Tongass — the nation’s largest national forest and arguably the most fought over.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2013 established a goal that, within 15 years, the vast majority of timber harvested from the West Virginia-sized forest will be young growth, or stands that have been previously logged.
Conservation groups have fought an agency decision to continue selling old-growth logs, or "bridge timber," to sustain mills through the transition, saying the shift to younger growth can happen more quickly. But Murkowski and key forest officials warn that most second-growth trees are not yet old enough to cut.
The agency last September awarded a major, 10-year logging contract in the Tongass to Viking Lumber Co., southeast Alaska’s last remaining medium-sized mill, to harvest 3,800 acres of old-growth trees. The so-called Big Thorne timber project is being challenged in court.
"I want you to define progress for me to the people of the Tongass," Murkowski said, warning that there may be no mills left by the time the forest completes its transition.
Murkowski said the Agriculture Department also is yet to provide assistance for southeast Alaska mills to process smaller wood.
Tidwell said the agency is putting more timber up for sale in the Tongass but conceded that it is "not adequate."
The Tongass is planning to offer a little more than 100 million board feet of timber in 2015 through the Wrangell Island and Saddle Lakes projects, the agency said.
There are also three young growth sales in various planning stages.
But Mark Kaelke, southeast Alaska project director at Trout Unlimited, said timber harvests play a small and declining role in the region’s economy, which is buoyed heavily by fishing and tourism.
"The economy of the region has grown beyond the Forest Service’s continued focus on subsidized timber sales," he said. "We think the pace of the Forest Service’s Tongass transition is too slow."
Timber harvests nationwide are taking on added prominence this year following Congress’ failure to renew Secure Rural Schools in last December’s lame duck.
In the absence of SRS — which provided roughly $300 million last year to forested counties to compensate them for recent declines in timber harvests — the Forest Service said last month about $50 million in revenues, primarily from logging, will be made available to counties under a century-old 25 percent revenue-sharing agreement.
That’s put many Western counties in a major budget crisis.
Members also debated the Obama administration’s fiscal 2016 proposal to pay for severe wildfires using disaster funds outside the Forest Service budget. Murkowski said she shares "the primary goal of that proposal" but took no position, noting that concerns have been raised over its mechanics.
The Forest Service also took heat from Republican senators over its pace of implementing new streamlining authority for forest treatment projects offered in the 2014 farm bill. The bill allowed the agency to authorize treatment of up to 3,000 acres of insect- and disease-threatened trees using a National Environmental Policy Act categorical exclusion, if certain strict conditions have been met.
Tidwell said one project has been authorized in Montana under the new authority and that many more are on the way in fiscal 2016.
Tidwell touted the agency’s $4.9 billion budget, saying it would allow the agency to improve forest health and reduce risks on 2.9 million acres, restore 3,200 miles of streams and 2,000 miles of roads, and improve ecologic conditions in 20 watersheds.
It would also facilitate 3.2 billion board feet of logging and 1.7 million acres of hazardous fuels treatments in the wildland urban interface, Tidwell said.
Ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) offered strong praise for the proposal.
"The president’s budget is a strong proposal that will enable the Forest Service to fulfill its motto of ‘caring for the land and serving the people,’" she said. "This budget not only improves the health of our land but continues your predecessors’ legacy of managing the forest to provide greater good to the greatest number of people."