A new inventory of old growth trees could be coming. Will it be too late?

The Ketchikan headquarters of Alcan Forest Products and Alaska Forest Association. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Trump Administration is seeking a full exemption from the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest.

Public comments found most people want to keep the federal rule in place. But state officials have been pushing hard to exempt Alaska — in part to help the state’s declining timber industry.

But one logging company says the industry is facing other challenges: Chinese tariffs. So they aren’t counting on a new inventory of trees just yet.

For Eric Nichols, head of Alcan Forest Products, times are hard.

In his Ketchikan office, he said calls to fix broken logging equipment can start rolling in at the crack of dawn.

Nichols oversees logging camps in remote locations, sometimes only accessible by boat or a small plane. Last year, the timber industry in Alaska employed just over 300 people. Nichols supplies paychecks for 50 of them. He said those jobs are important.

Still, it’s not always easy doing business.

“It’s a challenge up here,” Nichols said. “Especially a challenge because it’s government ownership on all the lands, and it’s an expensive place to operate.”

But that’s not Nichols only headache.

He now has to pay a tariff to export logs to his biggest customer: China. Over the summer, President Donald Trump’s trade war with the country escalated, and Alcan Forest Products’ tariff on spruce doubled.

“The 20% (tariff) hit us outta the blue,” Nichols said. “I really expected those guys to resolve their differences and solve this.”

Related: Tourism advocates say proposed Roadless Rule exemption threatens industry’s growth

At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest engulfs most of Southeast Alaska. It’s part of the largest intact temperate rainforest on Earth.

The proposed exemption from the Roadless Rule means prohibitions on logging could be removed for millions of acres of old growth trees in the region.

Nichols said being able to log more valuable old growth trees in the Tongass would give him some flexibility to ride out the current global market. But he expects this change to the Roadless Rule could be litigated for years. And he’s not not sure if he can wait.

“We’re in our 60s, most of the people in this industry is,” Nichols said. “You gotta decide … is there a next generation coming or not?”

The U.S. Forest Service is holding public meetings across Southeast Alaska to discuss the proposed exemption to the Roadless Rule. A final decision is expected next year.

A version of this story first appeared on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

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