Review of the Forest Service's latest timber sale
Clearcuts spread over a hilly landscape on POW. The proposed Mitkof Island timber project contains more large old clearcuts in an area already heavily logged;
much like this area.
Yesterday, the Forest Service released the Decision Notice for the proposed Mitkof Island timber sale. This Decision Notice outlines the exact details of the project showing the how, the where and the amount of timber to be harvested. Unsurprisingly the Forest Service has chosen the alternative that contains the most volume of timber. The sale was first proposed in February 2013 and was initially billed as the ‘Mitkof Island Small Sales Project’, designed to meet the needs of the local community and small mills. It has since morphed into a textbook large-scale Forest Service timber sale that only goes to further liquidate our limited stock of old-growth forest in one swift cut. The sale does, however, contain progressive elements and demonstrate a more responsible use of old-growth timber in some aspects.
What is proposed?
The alternative selected by the Forest Service will see 28.5 million board feet (MMBF) of timber harvested from 4,177 acres. The timber will come from both old and second growth, with 800 acres of old-growth harvest and 750 acres of young-growth commercial thinning, amounting to 50% removal. Also, included is 1,500 acres of old growth with 95 or 98% retention, this is designed to supplement the microsale program (details below), which is also included, but with live green trees. The selected alternative also includes an additional one-time helicopter harvest that amounts to 13.4 MMBF of old-growth harvest, retaining 66% of the standing trees.
What we like
The project contains a new design component that seeks to compliment and expand upon the microsale program first applied on Prince of Wales (POW) Island. This program offers operators the chance to go out and prospect for dead or downed trees close to the existing road systems. These trees are still very valuable and if suitable ones can be found the Forest Service will draft up a contract and offer them for sale. However, whilst including the original the Mitkof project also includes an evolution of the microsale program to now include green trees whereby almost 1,500 acres will be approved for multiple harvest entries for microsales with either 95 or 98% basal area (aka tree) retention. The allowable harvest per sale would range from an individual green tree through to small openings not exceeding 1.5 acres. This means a unit is open to repeated small harvests until such a time 2 or 5% of the stands original tree area has been removed. It offers flexibility to the mills so they can extract what timber they want and, whilst the unit is open, when they want.
A standing dead spruce is felled to create music wood as part of the microsale program
on POW. This type of low impact harvest and value-added product is the future of the old-
growth timber industry in Southeast Alaska.
What we don’t like
Yet also included in the sale is almost 800 acres of clearcut and very low-retention old-growth harvest, amounting to over 10MMBF. Mitkof Island has already experienced decades of industrial scale logging and yet large areas are slated for clearcut logging. In the sale Environmental Assessment the Forest Service admits, “The total volume slated for ground-based harvest systems may well exceed the capacity of current small sales purchasers.” Therefore, by continuing to offer these large sales, that only one or two mills in the region can process, the USFS is essentially bias towards the needs of these large export based operators. In reality they should be developing policy and incentives to keep profits in Southeast Alaska and not liquidate large tracts of our old-growth assets in a few short years.
Scenes like this industrial scale clearcut on POW need to become a thing of the past, the
negative ecological impacts last for hundred of years. Plus very few mills can process units
of this scale. Those that can export most of the trees un-processed out of region, meaning
Alaskans are missing out on the profits from these ancient and unrenewable trees.
In addition to the clearcuts, the newly announced Decision Notice includes 2,000 acres of un-even aged harvest, where 66% of the trees are left standing. Again, the volume and cost of extracting this timber, via helicopter, only “seeks to meet the need of larger operators within the region.” It seems un-fair to be offering such large volumes of timber that small mills cannot bid on. Furthermore, whilst the selective harvest of this portion is certainly better than clearcuts, the 66% retention has no credible scientific backing as to its effectiveness at retaining old-growth forest function. We hope the Forest Service monitors these stands to assess how successful, or not, they really are.
The Mitkof Island timber sale seems to reflect the current split personality of the Forest Service. On the one hand there is big talk of the need to transit to a young-growth based timber industry. Whilst ensuring wise use of our old-growth forests, promoting the development of a diverse value-added in-situ timber processing economy; not exporting these potential profits elsewhere. Yet it continues to promote and support practices of the past that only temporarily prop-up Southeast Alaska’s timber economy and do not provide it with sure foundations for the future. A federal land-management agency is essentially responsible for the economic development of the Tongass. By definition this is neither its focus nor its authority, but by circumstance it is a major cog in the future and development of the region’s economy. With the appointment of a new Forest Supervisor on the Tongass, Earl Stewart, just announced we can only hope this pandering to the needs of the regions quick cut and export based operators becomes a thing of the past sooner rather than later. Otherwise, there will be no more suitable timber left to support our value-added, small-scale mills that provide more stable, well paid and long-term jobs per board foot of timber cut than traditional large clearcut operations.
Find out more detailed information on the project here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=29099