Looks a little familiar? Sitka Spruce stands growing in Scotland. Photo: Nancy Owens Barnes ©
What is the Sitka Conservation Society doing in Scotland? The Highlands are home to more than just kilts, haggis and whisky. Scotland is also home to large swaths of Sitka Spruce plantations. The Scots have been cultivating Sitka Spruce for a commercial timber supply since the early 20th Century and the Sitka Conservation Society wants to learn more! There could be many lessons for the Tongass to learn as it moves away from an old-growth based timber industry.
The Tongass is currently undergoing a change. In May of 2010 the Secretary of Agriculture announced the federal government’s intention to transition the remaining timber industry on the Tongass National Forest away from harvesting old growth to predominately young-growth. The legacy of the pulp mills is such that there is almost half a million acres of young-growth forest spread across Southeast Alaska. Since that announcement the Sitka Conservation Society, Forest Service, environmental NGOs and other stakeholders have worked to initiate the Tongass Transition. This culminated in the release of an amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan in November 2015. The Plan is essentially a zoning map of the Tongass that defines what activity can occur and where on the forest. The amendment outlines how old-growth logging will be ramped down in the coming years while concurrently young-growth sales steadily increase as more stands become economical and harvestable.
The beginning of the Tongass Transition is great news for those of us who want to see the clear-cutting of old-growth forests become a thing of the past. However, the end of old-growth logging is not the end to environmental threats to the Tongass. The young-growth stands that grow after clear-cut logging are very poor for wildlife and are a effectively a biological desert for the next 150 years unless habitat improvements are made. We are working with the Forest Service and the timber industry to try to figure out how to manage young-growth.
We want to see the young-growth forests managed in a way that restores the most productive watersheds and habitat.
We also want to make sure that young-growth forests are managed in a way that happens with a sustainable rotation rather than just a boom-and-bust that leaves landscapes and communities in a bad situation. Fitting all these pieces together is going to be very challenging. There are currently many questions and unknowns regarding the establishment and long-term viability of a young-growth habitat restoration, timber harvest in young growth, and what a young growth timber industry looks like in Southeast Alaska.
There are places that we can look at to learn what has worked and what hasn’t in other places. The Sitka Spruce tree is actually a globally important timber resource and is now grown in many countries around the world as a commercial species due to its rapid growth and good structural qualities.
One such place that has nearly 100 years experience of managing young-growth spruce is Scotland, in the United Kingdom.
Scotland has a very similar climate and geography to Southeast Alaska, being on the same latitude. Therefore, growing conditions and rates are likely to be very similar to those found here in southeast. SCS has decided to investigate how Scottish foresters manage their young-growth Sitka Spruce stands to see if there are any lessons to be learned for the Tongass Transition.
SCS staffer Luke A’Bear will spend the next 3 weeks travelling around strange and remote parts of Scotland visiting forests and talking with land managers. He plans to explore state and private forests, big modern mills and small Mom and Pop mills to get insights from the young-growth spruce industry in Scotland. Our hope is that this project will provide us with valuable insights on how the Scottish Sitka Spruce industry works and what lessons could be applied in Southeast Alaska to assist in making the Tongass Transition a success.
Stay tuned for regular photo and blog updates from the field as Luke travels around and discovers how the Sitka Spruce timber industry operates in Scotland.