Report: State Should Take Over Tongass Timber Land

The Parnell administration wants to put 2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest into a state-managed logging trust. It’s one of several recommendations released yesterday by the governor’s Timber Jobs Task Force.

It’s one of the recommendations released Tuesday by the governor’s Timber Jobs Task Force.

“These lands would be for economic development and would support a timber industry in Southeast Alaska,” says State Forester Chris Maisch, who chairs the task force.

The 2-million-acre proposal is the panel’s most ambitious idea. Others propose different ways to gain state control of federal land. (Scroll down to read the task force’s top recommendations.)

“If the state did acquire the acreage it would have to have a forest management plan and other documents completed, just like it has currently under federal ownership. The big difference being that federal ownership has a much more burdensome process to go through,” Maisch says.

The goal is to provide timber to revive the state’s shrinking logging and milling industry. He says 2 million acres would do that.

Governor Sean Parnell formed the task force last year. Its nine members include four state officials, three industry leaders, one federal representative and a resident of a logging town.

The governor issued an executive order creating the statewide panel as he pulled his administration out of the Tongass Futures Roundtable. That’s a larger regional organization including environmental and tribal groups.

Owen Graham represents the Alaska Forest Association, an industry group, on the timber task force.

“Our goal is to restore what we call a fully integrated industry. It would have enough mills, not just sawmills, but mills that could process the pulp logs and utilize each type of wood,” Graham says. (Link to the full Timber Jobs Task Force report.)

The Tongass National Forest covers about 17 million acres, more than 80 percent of Southeast.

The panel also proposes exchanging about a quarter-million acres of state land outside the region for parcels in the Tongass.

Maisch says state officials would then turn it over to communities for economic development.

“The task force spent a lot of time looking at Southeast and came to the conclusion that the communities in Southeast would benefit greatly if there was more diverse ownership of land,” Maisch says.

“It just appears to be entirely unrealistic,” says Bob Claus of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

He says any state proposal to take over federal forests is dead on arrival.

“In the history of the land management of the Tongass, proposals like this have been floated and been shot down by industry groups, by environmental groups and by the people nationwide who are concerned about their national forest,” Claus says.

He says SEACC likes a few of the task force’s ideas. But they ignore other parts of the region’s economy.

“We share the same goals as far as high-value-added manufacturing and support of small mills,” he says. “We just think that we ought to be working on tourism, on fisheries and on these small-scale timber mills.”

Alaska Regional Forester Beth Pendleton was named to the original panel. But the agency changed to an advisory role, in part due to state legal action against the federal government.

Forest Service spokesman Ray Massey says the task force’s plans raise some concerns.

“Right up front we said we don’t really endorse the findings or recommendations of this report because we do disagree with several of the findings in the administrative order that started this group of people to provide this report,” Massey says.

The panel has not specified which Tongass land it wants turned over to the state. Maisch says the task force supports Sealaska’s proposed land selections. He says state claims would not conflict with the regional Native corporation’s.

The panel also wants to establish new state forests, or expand existing ones.

The largest would add 1.1 million acres to the Tanana Valley State Forest.

The task force’s Maisch says another would add 800,000 acres in the Susitna Valley.

“There are several other places in the state that are also recommended. And almost all of this is to help support the growing interest in woody biomass, for helping communities address high energy costs, specifically for space heating and also electrical generation,” he says.

Other plans include:
• a 450,000-acre Copper River Valley State Forest
• a 150,000-acre Kenai State Forest
• a 35,000-acre Icy Bay State Forest, northwest of Yakutat.

Timber Jobs Task Force recommendations include:

  • Expanding existing state forests and establishing new state forests.
  • Revising state statutes and regulations to address the needs of small timber operators.
  • Seeking state management of federal timber acreage in Southeast Alaska, or improved federal policies to meet timber supply demand.
  • Seeking a 250,000-acre state-federal land exchange, with dispersal of the newly acquired lands to Southeast communities for local economic use.
  • Pressing the federal government to advertise additional timber sales and exempt Alaska national forests from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues.

He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.

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