Understanding the Tongass Transition

Understanding ‘The Tongass Transition': What It Means for Our Backyard

Maybe you've seen or heard some of these terms being thrown around our website, news publications, in conversations or radio pieces: the Tongass Transition, the Tongass Land Management Plan, Second Growth, Young Growth, Old Growth, Tongass Advisory Committee. Maybe not.

Either way, lets look at what the Tongass Transition means for our public lands and how it will impact our 17 million acre backyard. Lets dissect some of this jargon.

Defining the Tongass National Forest: Where the Transition is Taking Place

Southeast Alaska is broken into private land, state land, native corporation property and many small, rural communities. The Tongass National Forest encompasses the great majority of land and includes forest, alpine, mountains, coastline, , glaciers, estuaries, rivers and streams. These lands are managed very differently compared with national parks like Glacier Bay. While both are ‘public lands', National Forests are managed for multiple uses. You can fish here, hunt, camp, log timber, harvest mushrooms, and start a business based on the extraction or admiration of, natural resources. That being said, you can't just do whatever you want in National Forests. These public lands are managed for ecological integrity and public use by the US Forest Service. Our 17 million acre backyard is chopped up into different subsections with differing land use designations that determine where timber can be extracted, where wilderness is maintained, where ‘modifications' can occur and what types of projects and interventions can happen here.

The Tongass Transition Framework refers to a shift in management of these public lands. In 2011, the framework was first announced by leaders in the Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that houses the United States Forest Service. The goal of the management shift being to transition focus from old growth clear cutting to young growth management and a more holistic approach to governing these lands that integrates all non-timber harvest economic values that the Tongass generates. To understand the significance of this from an ecological standpoint let's visit the forest.

Old Growth, Second Growth, Young Growth : A Very Brief Ecology

The differences between ‘old-growth' and ‘young-growth' are important and a little background in forest succession will help you see why. First off, the term ‘stand' is often used to describe a tract of forest with similar characteristics. The characteristics of our old-growth stands include mature, ancient trees, represented primarily by Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Alaska Yellow Cedar. Of these trees, the Alaska Yellow Cedar are especially ancient: some may be as old as 3000 years. When these trees were saplings, the Ancient Egyptian empire was just coming to a close. So it's no surprise that it takes time for a forest to show old growth characteristics- hence ‘old' growth.

These stands are critical for wildlife who depend on the specific characteristics of this forest structure. For example, during harsh winters Sitka Black Tailed Deer depend on the lush understory and protection from snowpack that the old-growth canopy provides. Also, old-growth stands that are adjacent to salmon rivers facilitate fish production. When standing, these trees regulate stream temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and their ancient roots prevent erosion of stream banks. When they die and crash into the water, their trunks and root wads create pools and make habitat for salmon to spawn and smolts to rest from rushing currents. These forest stands are ecologically important for sustaining healthy populations of wildlife, regulating clean water, fresh air, sequestering carbon etc. These stands are also economically significant and currently represent the bulk focus of timber harvesting on the Tongass.

When large expanses of old-growth stands are clear-cut, the characteristics of the forest are dramatically altered. As the trees begin to grow back in unison, they pack together densely in competition for sunlight. The top canopies of these even aged trees close and overlap so tightly that plants thriving on the forest floor (e.g. forbs, berry bushes, ferns, and shrubs) don't receive sunlight and eventually die. Wildlife (and humans) struggle to navigate through the dense trees and slash (woody material left behind during the harvest that clutters the forest floor). Although not worthless, these stands are considerably less valuable for wildlife due to an eventual lack of understory plants for forage and the limits to motion the forest structure creates. These trees have often been called second-growth because they are the ‘second' group of trees established in an area, after the initial clearcut. They are more accurately called young-growth because they can be cut again and again and a 'third' and ‘fourth' growth of trees would follow. If you hike off the trails in Southeast Alaska, the difference between stands is intuitive: you can take a nice stroll through old growth, you need to bushwack through early second growth. Thinning second-growth stands, or removing a percentage of the trees, can help wildlife while providing timber. This is the timber source the Transition intends to move to.

Why Do We Need A Transition?

A healthy forest landscape includes a mixture of forest stands in varying stages of succession. Disturbances happen naturally (think landslide and blowdown) and forest succession is an inevitable process. The ecological issues lie in the extent and sheer magnitude of past clearcuts that left behind an unnatural mosaic of forest succession and salmon streams devoid of large trees. Over the course of 60 years the Forest Service and private native corporations sold and harvested almost 1 millions acres of our rainforest. We crushed the majority of this wood into dissolving pulp and barged it, and eventually the economic stimulation it brought, away. This has left behind vast acreage of second growth, impaired landscapes and streams and, rural communities that desperately need sustainable economic stimulation.

Image showing a mosaic of trees in varying stages of sucession

The reasons for the Transition however, extend beyond ecological needs. The reasons are vast and also social, economic, political, ideological. Unsustainable timber liquidation is a story retold across the globe- the world is running out of ancient trees and old-growth forests. We want to protect our remaining stands because healthy ecosystems provide clean water, air, atmosphere and energy. We also want to protect old-growth forests so our children can inherit these spectacular landscapes. We want to recreate here and we need healthy wildlife populations to continue to hunt deer, harvest plants and fish. We want to maintain our national heritage and the quality of life in Southeast Alaska we cherish. Old growth is a big part of a healthy environment and healthy communities. Practically and economically, a continued sole dependence on old-growth lumber can not be sustained long-term. Although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, without careful management and patience, 300 year old spruce and hemlock trees can not realistically support industry if the harvest of these trees is not done with silvicultural tenets in mind like sustained yield, appropriate harvest scale for regeneration and rotation, and long term stand management and planning.

We are lucky in the Tongass because we still have considerable areas of virtually untouched forest, healthy salmon habitat and a variety of natural resources that, if managed carefully, can sustain diverse and vibrant economies in Southeast Alaska long term. We still have time to make this work and exploring uses for second growth is a good start.

The Big Picture: What is the Transition Really About

While a wholesale halt to all old-growth harvesting is both unrealistic and unnecessary, changes to our timber policy are integral. We need policies that value this globally rare commodity for what it really is: precious. We need to harvest carefully, selectively and manufacture and utilize this lumber in a way that maximizes stable jobs in the Southeast, respects the resource, and uses it responsibly.

Simultaneously, we need to, in the words of a local miller, "Stick our heads in the young growth and see what is there''. How can we utilize this timber source, improve habitat for wildlife, create jobs, innovate and make markets for this wood? Young growth trees have not been packing on the growth rings and woody layers for hundreds of years like old-growth trees so the characteristics of the wood differs from ancient spruce and hemlock. However, there are plenty of valuable uses for these wood products and the Sitka Conservation Society has already spearheaded a number of successful projects that demonstrate the value of young-growth.

Recreation and Tourism support over 8,000 jobs in the region and contribute just under 1 billion annually to the Southeast's economy. One in ten jobs in Southeast Alaska are supported by salmon produced from the Tongass National Forest.

The agency is also transitioning from a narrow focus on timber to the reality that the Tongass National Forest provides ample resources beyond wood. How can we maintain these other resources and stimulate additional economic opportunity around them? In the words of the same miller, "If we depend on just fishing, just mining or just timber- we are going to deplete one or the other." [quote]So the Tongass Transition is not just about pursuing smaller trees and leaving the old ones behind, its about establishing a more balanced and holistic management regime that values this land and its residents long term[/quote]. Investigating the best use of, and sustained management of our timber resources is part of it. Rebuilding the health of habitat damaged by past logging is part. Understanding how these resources will be impacted by climate change and preparing is a piece. Recognizing the significance of recreation and tourism to our economy is a big chunk of it too.

The Transition in Practice: The Tongass AdvisoryCommittee

Accomplishing this transition is no easy task. Southeast Alaska is a unique place where a single agency is responsible for the vast majority of land in a region that depends on the natural resources it provides. We need a healthy and stable supply of natural resources for our economy, our subsistence, for clean water, fresh air and energy production. We need our forest to keep producing salmon, the key economic driver and cultural lifeblood in the region, and we need to protect all of this from overharvest and climate change. That is certainly not an easy task and a massive amount of responsibility for an agency with limited resources. To the great benefit of all, the Forest Service has been strengthening its capacity for collaboration and partnership building and this is where our final terms enter the story- the ‘TAC' and ‘TLMP'.

The members of the TAC were selected and announced in May. The ‘Tongass Advisory Committee' is an official Federal Advisory Committee that includes conservationists, industry representatives, native interests, and other stakeholder leaders. The team of fifteen will participate in a series of meetings and discussions led by a professional and highly experienced facilitator and mediator. In 2015, the group will provide guidance to the Forest Service, make recommendations, and propose alternatives to amend the Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP). TLMP is basically a constitution for how our 17 million acre backyard should be managed. It is a dynamic document that needs to be amended and updated when our values, economies, and resources shift. With respect to timber specifically, this document outlines where and how lumber can be harvested, how forest stands are ‘upkept', thinned and managed for future harvesting and what regulations and rules must be upheld to protect wildlife. TLMP is the ‘go-to' document for forest management and adjustments and amendments to the plan will have lasting and important impacts on our forest.

The Sitka Conservation Society is pleased that our executive director, Andrew Thoms, will be standing on the TAC committee and providing support and guidance alongside a variety of stakeholders. [quote]SCS is working in the field, on the forest and in rural communities to flesh out our vision, inform our objectives and prepare recommendations for TAC. We will continue to share our findings, our vision and seek input from our community so that we can best represent our collective vision.[/quote]

So again, what is the Transition? [quote]Simply put, the Tongass Transition is about maximizing local benefits to our communities while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love.[/quote] The Transition is about responsibility and caring for a landscape that can provide resources while maintaining its full compliment of ecological diversity- something that is increasingly rare across the globe. The Transition is a refusal to repeat history. The Transition is about being proactive rather than reactive and TAC and the future amendment process is about giving voice back to variety stakeholders who love and depend on our 17-million acre backyard.

Follow along with SCS as we work in the forest and with communities to realize the Tongass Transition. Let us know your thoughts and input and reach out to us by email [info@sitkawild.org] or shout out to our twitter account and show us how you enjoy the Tongass or tell us how you want to see America's largest national forest managed: @sitka_wild . .

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