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.
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.
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.
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.”
. 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 Advisory Committee
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.
So again, what is the Transition?
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.
SCS Board Member, Brendan Jones recently published an article in the New Your Times: “Fish Need Trees, too.” detailing the Forest Service’s poor management of resources in Southeast Alaska, putting giant, ecologically destructive clear-cuts over protecting habitat for salmon–the backbone of the Southeat Alaskan economy.
This year, though, the fishing fleet in southeast Alaska will work under the shadow of an announcement by the United States Forest Service that it intends to approve the Big Thorne timber sale, which would allow the logging industry to harvest about 6,200 acres of remnant old-growth trees in Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. It would be the most destructive old-growth cut in the forest in the past 20 years.
You can help.
Sign the Petition below: Tell Alaska’s senators to put pressure on the Forest Service to prioritize our salmon and stop support out-dated logging projects.
Write a Letter: Ask the Forest Service and Senators to make better decisions about our public lands and start judging success by counting the number of jobs and economic gains of salmon production rather than the number of board feet.
Remind the Forest Service that Fish Need Trees, too!
Your message will be delivered to Senators Begich and Muskowski, Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, Chief of the Forest Service Tm Tidwell, and Regional Forester Beth Pendleton.
The Sitka Conservation Society and US Forest Service are working with community support and partner organizations to encourage a regional management transition across the Tongass National Forest. Our ultimate goal is that the management of our public lands reflects the collective interests and values of the region’s many stakeholders. We work tirelessly to ensure that our largest national forest remains healthy, vibrant and productive for generations to come. To achieve these long-term goals, we encourage a shift away from an unsustainable focus on old-growth timber harvesting to the stimulation of a diversified and resilient regional economy with responsible watershed management.
Part of a successful transition involves an active US Forest Service Fisheries and Watershed Program with strong community and partner support. Unfortunately, for the last several years federal funding, including those allocated for fisheries and watershed management in the Alaska region, have decreased around 5 to 10% annually. SCS strongly advocates for forest management and a Forest Service budget that recognizes the significance of salmon and other fish and wildlife across the Tongass.
We are excited that this year, the Fisheries and Watershed budget in the Alaska region has been boosted by about 15%! This means that several important programs and projects that were on the back burner due to insufficient funding, can now move forward.
I sat down with Greg Killinger, Fish, Watershed, and Soils Program Manager on the Tongass who was very excited about these budget changes. “After several years of declining funding, it is great to see an increase in funds available to get important fisheries, wildlife and watershed work done on the Tongass with our communities in Southeast Alaska.”
The types of projects and programs the Fisheries and Watershed sector supports include the stabilization, maintenance and restoration of damaged fish and wildlife habitat, the replacement or removal of unnecessary culverts that currently obstruct fish movement, and the support of monitoring projects that protect and secure a stable future for our natural resources. Major project work is planned on Kuiu Island, Prince of Wales Island and our neighbor in Sitka – Kruzof Island.
We continue to encourage adjustments to the region’s budget and changes to management scope and strategy that support a healthier future for our forest, fish, and communities. Thank you to the Forest Service for taking this initial step in the right direction! Cheers to this small victory, now go get outside and enjoy the brilliant and healthy landscape we are so fortunate to call home!
Last week, after much anticipation, SCS was able to get the Young Growth bike shelter installed at the Sitka Sound Science Center. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, we encourage you to do so. It’s the product of multiple community partnerships and hard work. This summer SCS produced a video about the bike shelter and it features time lapse footage of the shelter going up and an interview with Randy Hughey, the instructor at Sitka High who designed the shelter along with local craftsman Dan Sheehan.
To celebrate, we will be holding a small dedication celebration on Tuesday, January 28th, at 3:00 PM. If you are interested in a bike ride, meet up at Totem Square at 2:45 for a quick ride down to the shelter. We will be thanking people who have helped along the way and have some light refreshments.
We can’t thank all of these great people enough for their help with this project!
National Forest Foundation, CCLS program
Randy Hughey and Dan Sheehan
Sitka Sound Science Center
Chris Pearson and Coastal Excavation
City of Sitka Parks and Recreation
Mike Litman – Precision Boatworks
US Forest Service
Good Faith Lumber
Keith Landers H & L salvage
Baranof Island Brewing Company
SCS members, staff, interns and volunteers
Tell Senators Begich and Murkowski: Don't let the Forest Service Clear-Cut the Wilderness and Recreation Budget
On the day before Halloween, the US Forest Service announced they were going to reduce the already insufficient $1.1 million dollar Wilderness and Recreation budget for the entire Tongass National Forest by over half a million dollars.
This is “budgetary clear-cutting” with the Forest Service already proposing the closure of 12 cabins alongside a reduction in the staff positions responsible for maintaining trails, keeping cabins stocked and safe, and processing the permits for guides and tour operators.
Cabin closures and loss of Wilderness and Recreation staff overall signifies a lack of prioritization of the tourism and recreation industries here in the Tongass National Forest. The tourism industry alone racks in $1 Billion annually with thousands of visitors coming every year to experience the wilderness of Southeast Alaska.
The Forest Service is not fulfilling its promise of the Tongass Transition. The Transition is a framework the agency adopted in 2010 aimed at creating jobs in sectors like recreation and tourism while moving away from Southeast’s outdated timber management program. For instance, next year the Forest Service has estimates that just one timber sale will COST taxpayers $15.6 Million (that’s over 25 times the entire Wilderness and Rec budget). The Transition (were it to be enacted) would dictate that sustainable and profitable programs like Recreation and Wilderness would take precedence over such wasteful timber projects.
The Forest Service enacted the Transition three years ago. Now we want them to take action to save our recreation and tourism opportunities from these budgetary reductions. We need to support what sustains our livelihoods here in the Tongass rather than reduce them year after year.
Contact Senator Begich and Senator Murkowski. Ask them to encourage the Forest Service to take action on the Tongass Transition by reallocating their budgets to make Wilderness and Recreation a priority and to push for more federal funding for the Forest Service. Email, while important, are not as effective as written letters. If you would like help drafting a letter, contact SCS at [email protected] or call (907) 747-7509.
Over the course of the summer, I had a chance to talk to a huge number of fishermen, but our conversations did not happen just at the harbors, docks, or in Sitka’s Pbar. Instead, they occurred on tenders.
Tenders are a very important component of Southeast Alaska’s fishing industry and serve fishing boats that are far from their home harbors.
Either stationary like the Shoreline Scow by Pelican or mobile like Sitka’s Ginny C or Deer Harbor II, tenders serve our fishermen with paychecks, ice, and at times with rare amenities like hot showers and right-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. The job of tender boats is to unload the catch from fishing boats on the fishing grounds. On the tender boats, the fishermen’s catch gets sorted, weighed, iced up, and packed away in a matter of minutes. During those minutes, there is a lot of physical and mental endurance by people who are typically behind the scenes in the fishing industry.
As a community organizer, I saw working on tenders as not only a way to reach out to fishermen about the Tongass Transition during the busy fishing season, but also as a way to get some sort of experience in the lifestyle and hard work that most people in Southeast commit to in order to make their living.
Picture the King salmon opening in July, which is one of the busiest times for salmon trollers and consequently for the tenders. A typical day for tender deckhands begins at 6 or 7 in the morning with greetings from fishermen that have been waiting to sell their fish since 3 am. There is not just one boat waiting to offload, but a line of 5 boats with more lingering close by. The hydraulics are turned on, the crane is in motion, and bags of fish are hauled one at a time from the fishermen’s boat to a tray on the tender where the deckhands sort the fish for quality and weight.
Once weighed these often heavy and large fish are grasped by the gills and neck, one in each hand, by deckhands that then simultaneously toss both fish into a tote with a repetition that fills the tote with layers of fish and ice in a matter of seconds. These deckhands have to be quick, to operate under pressure, to persevere with numb hands and hungry bellies as each fishermen offloads thousands of pounds of their livelihood onboard in the hopes to catch more in the next few days.
With troll caught Coho aboard, deckhands of the Ginny C and myself removed the ice from salmon bellies, weighed the fish, placed them in totes, and then stuffed their bellies again with ice.
After working on their feet for hours, moving around totes of around 1000 pounds of fish and ice, breaking apart new totes of ice with metal shovels, tossing around 12 pound fish with sore muscles and wrists, stuffing salmon bellies with ice, and then scrubbing the whole operation down with bleach, Joy soap, and water, the deckhands yawn themselves to bed around 2 am, quite possibly still covered in fish slime. Then they will sleep for 4 or 5 hours, wake up, and do it all over again.
The Shoreline in Pelican, AK has been a woman-run operation for decades, and I was fortunate to join them for a few days and share in their hard, hard work, which helps our fishermen keep fishing.
Stay tuned! I will be posting a blog piece focused on the advocacy work I did on tenders entitled “You slay ‘um, we weigh ‘um”: a mix of tendering and Tongass Transition advocacy in Southeast Take Two. A big thank you to KaiLea Wallin who coined the two slogans I have used as titles for these blog pieces.
THE TONGASS NATIONAL FOREST AND THE COHO SALMON:
Alaska’s coho fisheries and the Tongass National Forest are closely related. Shot in Sitka over the fishing season of 2013 by Berett Wilber, this photo essay illustrates how conservation and restoration matter to local fisherman, and why it should matter to you.
SCS’s short documentary Restoring America’s Salmon Forest was selected to show at the Alaska Forum on the Environment Film Festival on Friday, February 8, 2013 in Anchorage. The film focuses on a multi-agency effort to increase salmon returns on the Sitkoh River in Southeast Alaska’s Chichagof Island, by improving the spawning and rearing habitat and redirecting a river that was heavily damaged by logging operations in the 1970s.
In the heyday of the Southeast Alaska timber industry, little regard was paid to the needs of salmon. Streams were frequently blocked and diverted, with streams in 70 major watersheds remaining that way decades later. Salmon surpassed timber in economic importance in Southeast Alaska more than two decades ago, but only in the last few years has the Forest Service finally made a serious effort to repair damaged streams. Currently over 7,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska are tied to the fishing industry, compared to about 200 in the timber industry. The Forest Service spends about three times as much on timber related projects as fisheries and restoration projects each year on the Tongass.
While salmon are responsible for 10 times as many jobs in Southeast Alaska as timber, and are also an important food source and a critical part of our cultural identity, the Forest Service still puts timber over salmon in its budget priorities. Recent Forest Service budgets have dedicated in the range of $22 million a year to timber and road building, compared to less than $2 million a year to restoring salmon streams damaged by past logging, despite a $100 million backlog of restoration projects.
Logging damages watersheds by diverting streams, blocking fish passage, and eliminating crucial spawning and rearing habitat structures. Restoration increases salmon returns by removing debris, redirecting streams, stabilizing banks to prevent erosion, and even thinning dense second-growth forest. We believe it simply makes sense to go back and repair habitat if you are responsible for its damage.
Please contact your representatives in Washington to tell them the ways you depend on Tongass salmon, and tell them you support managing the Tongass for salmon and permanently protecting important salmon producing watersheds. Tell them it is time to redirect funds from the bloated timber budget to the salmon restoration budget, and finally transitioning away from the culture of old-growth timber to sustainable practices recognizing all resources and opportunities.
What to say:
Check out the talking points in this post for some ideas of what you might include in your letters or calls.
Contact:Undersecretary Robert Bonnie
Department of Natural Resources and the Environment
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250
Email: [email protected]Senator Lisa Murkowski
709 Hart Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510
Email: [email protected]Senator Mark Begich
825C Hart Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510
Email: [email protected]
If you have questions, contact the Sitka Conservation Society at 747-7509 or [email protected]