We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect – Aldo Leopold
Stewardship of the Tongass National Forest means working with our local communities to connect citizens in a meaningful way to the natural environment while solving ecological or economic problems in a sustainable and healthy way. SCS works hard with land managers and the broader community to think creatively about habitat restoration, local economic development, timber sales, recreation opportunities, environmental education and monitoring, local contracting, and more. By doing so, we push land managers to ensure that our local needs and ecological values are consistently integrated into their decisions.
See the articles below for more information on our most recent work or take a look at our blog.
The Tongass Transition was announced in 2011 by leaders of the Department of Agriculture to shift industrial logging focus away from old-growth clear-cutting and toward development of a viable second-growth industry. The Sitka Conservation Society has been pushing hard to keep this transition on track since we firmly believe that the Tongass should be managed in a more holistic manner.
Most of the oldest and largest trees on the Tongass were cut in the decades following World War II. The patches of old growth that do remain may never be safe from danger. The Sitka Conservation Society strives to protect the remaining old growth forest and to advocate for wise and sustainable development of alternative Tongass resources such as salmon, second-growth timber sales, and tourism.
The extensive clear-cut logging in the Sitka Ranger District created new forest of quickly-growing, uniformly-aged conifers. This dense "second growth" forest impairs forest habitats by creating such an efficient sunlight block that forageable understory is virtually non-existent. Alaska’s salmon streams were also negatively impacted by logging. Approximately 500 miles of streamside habitat in Southeast Alaska were logged.
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
Good news for the Tongass!
This week, the Pacific Northwest Research Station announced it will hire a Research Fisheries Biologist to be stationed in Juneau.
Why is this good news? Because it means the Forest Service once again has a fisheries biologist stationed in Alaska. Several years ago, the Forest Service moved a fisheries research position out of Alaska just when Alaskans needed them to be looking more into salmon habitat, salmon production, and salmon population resilience.
According to Senator Begich, who wrote a strong letter to the Forest Service in support of hiring a fisheries biologist, “It only makes sense that fisheries research in Alaska should be conducted by staff in Alaska, not from a remote office located in another state.” To see the letter itself, click here: Begich Letter Supporting Juneau Position
In his letter, Begich noted that the Forest Service is facing a number of pressing environmental issues that justify an Alaska-based fisheries position. These issues include climate change vulnerability research, watershed restoration and monitoring, fish stream/road crossings, and an amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan.
The Sitka Conservation Society congratulates Senator Begich for supporting fisheries research in the state of Alaska. In 2013 alone, Southeast fishermen hauled in a record 272 million salmon. Annually, this generates almost a billion dollars in the Southeast Alaska economy! From commercial fishing to sport fishing to tourism, salmon-related jobs are now the mainstays of our economy. Thank you Senator Begich for recognizing the importance of salmon in Southeast and for encouraging the Forest Service to prioritize salmon, not timber, in the state of Alaska.
Let’s hope the Forest Service finds a great candidate to fill this new fisheries biologist position. Interested in applying? Click on the job description here: Outreach Notice Fish Biologist Juneau
For more information on this issue, please contact Sophie Nethercut at the Sitka Conservation Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 747-7509.
The Tongass National Forest is entering a new era with a focus on young growth management and a more robust and cohesive approach to balancing the social, economic and ecological needs of the region for current and future generations.
The task is daunting. However, the Forest Service is not alone. Developing and strengthening partnerships helps leverage funding, build capacity, and better integrates local knowledge and community priorities into management and project design. Navigating through the complex steps necessary to realize partner-rich projects on the ground is also daunting and complicated. However, success stories sprouting up across the region are a powerful reminder that it can be well worth the effort. The work carried out in the Kennel Creek watershed is one such story and elements of this project can serve as a valuable template for future work on the Tongass.
The Hoonah Community Forest Project
Located on North Chichagof Island with a population of around 780, Hoonah is a remote community with over 60% Alaska Native population. Like other rural communities in the Southeast, a contentious history of resource extraction on public and private lands continues to influence community dynamics. After the pulp industry ended, career prospects in the timber industry evaporated and many families were left jobless, with high energy prices and other burdensome expenses associated with living in an isolated rural community. Much of the surrounding landscape on which residents depend on for subsistence, recreation and cultural vitality has been affected by timber activity and needs to be restored. The challenge of balancing natural resource based economies with ecological resilience and cultural well-being remains an unsolved puzzle. However, the fervor of community members and their dedication to the prosperity of their community and the landscape in which they are embedded is firm.
Brought together by a common interest in improving productive fish and wildlife habitat while supporting local economies, a diversity of community members gathered to map out a vision for their forests and streams in 2005. During the Hoonah Community Forest Project, traditional land users, local mill operators, hunters, fishermen and naturalists partnered with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to develop this vision. Kennel Creek was recognized as a top priority watershed for habitat restoration. Members voiced concerns about the ecological impacts of past timber extraction and sought treatments that could restore deer habitat and improve overall watershed health. Importantly, the group wanted to achieve these goals while also developing local capacity for land management. Turning this collective vision into a reality would require a level of cooperation and partnership new to the Tongass.
Turning a Collective Vision into Action
In the aftermath of the the timber-boom era, Congress introduced ‘Title II’ funding to the region and established community led Resource Advisory Committees (RAC) to disburse funds to rural towns that had relied on receipts from timber sales for public services. The intention of these funds is to “protect, restore, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat; improve the maintenance of existing Forest Service infrastructure; protect and enhance ecosystems on the national forests; and restore and improve land health and water quality”. The Lynn Canal/Icy Straits RAC includes Hoonah Ranger District. The committee welcomed the Kennel Creek project proposal whose outlined goals were to restore wildlife habitat in previously logged areas while developing local capacity for land management activities in the process.
In 2011, Forrest Cole approved the RAC’s recommendation to fund the project at $235,000. Agency specialists would outline the prescriptions to be carried out, answer questions about the work and ensured restoration efforts emulate the best available science and expertise of the region. All that was needed was a local team who were dedicated to carrying out the work on the ground. The Hoonah Indian Association (HIA) natural resources work crew was born.
The work crew pruned dense second growth stands, pulling down dead branches to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and grow understory vegetation for wildlife. Where thick impenetrable layers of woody slash blanketed the forest, the crew cut trails to improve the permeability of these stands for wildlife. The project was completed in 2013 and received a gold star of approval from Chris Budke, USFS Forestry Technician who provided contract oversight and general support to the crew. But how does one actually evaluate project success and measure the benefits of a project whose goals included building local capacity for resource management? Start by asking the people involved.
Measuring Success On the Ground: Speaking with the Crew
Bob Leuband is the crewleader of HIA’s natural resources crew. When asked about the benefits of this program he explained,
“Keeping the knowledge local. Not losing that knowledge… If somebody comes in from the outside and does the work around here and then leaves. Well then what they learned, goes away with them. So, if we can keep this local, and always have it local, the knowledge will not be lost and the same person might be here for 30 or 40 years. So, that knowledge will be here for [at least] that length of time.”
The sharing of knowledge is reciprocal. The crew learns from the USFS and the USFS learns from the community crew.
Art Burbank is the district ranger of Hoonah,
“We are very fortunate in Hoonah to have the Hoonah Indian Association to work with. They provide logistical support for us. They provide hands on the ground. They provide an intense knowledge base, which we have some of but, they have a different perspective… The Forest Service is for sure, a relative newcomer to the Tongass. The Tlinglit people have been here for a long time and they have an understanding of the forest that we are doing our best to understand and integrate into management. Honestly they look at it from a different perspective. When we might look at it from a commercial perspective, they look at it from a personal perspective…they are much more tied to the land and the sustainability of themselves and their family from the land.”
While the USFS seeks to better engage with native interests and integrate community priorities and knowledge into project design, the thinning crew integrates the best available science into an existing place-based knowledge that spans generations and centuries.
John Hillman is the Natural Resource Director of HIA. John helped build HIA’s Natural Resource program and continues to enjoy watching the work crew learn and grow into a powerful team of land stewards,
“I think just in the short time they work there, they see the importance of coming in here. When they first came to this particular site, they were like, ‘Why are we doing this, pruning these trees up a third of the tree height?’ At that time, these forests didn’t have this green vegetation, it was just like a desert in here. In just this short period of time, once they actually see hands on improvements to forest health, they are starting to take pride in what they are doing. They want to be the people working on their lands here and they want to stay here for years to come. A lot of my crew is young.”
Hillman reflected on the pride of returning land stewardship and a feeling of ownership to the community. He also emphasized the significance of the program for providing jobs to a community that needs them. “I want to see it continue because the crew, they could retire without even moving from Hoonah doing this type of work.”
The crew has secured thinning, wildlife treatment and pruning contracts with the USFS, Huna Totem and SEALASKA. The application of their experience and knowledge is thus truly integrated across public and private lands and scaled at the landscape level. Currently, the crew is applying for an NRCS grant so they can continue to grow, potentially expand with a second crew and advance their toolkit to include salmon habitat restoration and enhancement activity, road maintenance and projects to enhance the cultivation of non-timber resources, like berries, for a growing cottage industry. The crew is also improving their capacity for monitoring and the adaptive management of their work. With a second crew, the group could grow to an employment base of 20 people. This is significant to a community of less than 800 residents especially because a healthy demand for work is promising job security and room for future growth and expansion.
The Future: Community Based Natural Resource Stewardship on the Tongass
Moving forward, what does the case of Kennel Creek mean for the Tongass? Accomplishing the transition to a holistic forest approach that includes young growth management will require continued silvicultural and wildlife treatments combined with the restoration of previously damaged watersheds. Kennel Creek serves as a template for accomplishing these goals by leveraging the funds and partnerships necessary for effective, locally-rooted, landscape level stewardship. Encouraging and stimulating local natural resource management ensures that work carried out on public lands more clearly reflects community priorities. By supporting local work crews, the USFS and its partners also keep the knowledge and nuances of natural resource management local. In this way, natural resource managers can continually learn from projects, iteratively evaluate techniques and adaptively manage our public lands. As the Tongass enters the first generation of actively managing young growth forest stands on a large scale, strengthening the capacity for adaptive management will prove more and more critical. .
By encouraging community-based resource management we also support local stewardship of public lands and stimulate job formation in rural communities that need sustainable natural-resource based economies. The Tongass Transition seeks to better align forest management with community priorities while striking a balance between local economies, ecological integrity and cultural well-being. Stories like Kennel Creek are empowering examples of how the USFS can work with communities, local tribes, and village and regional corporations to turn these common goals into a reality.
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
"This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems," Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. "It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides."
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka's 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
"I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list," Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. "That is the key that holds Southeast together."
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
"We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects," Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
"For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads," Cole said. "This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy."
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
"We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska," Hardcastle said. "We're not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities."
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.
The Sitka Conservation Society is working with a team of stakeholders to advise the US Forest Service and amend the Forest Plan for our beloved Tongass National Forest. To ground our vision and better understand what timber on the Tongass looks like today, we left our insulated home of Sitka to visit Prince of Wales Island. Under the mentorship of Michael Kampnich, a field representative for the Nature Conservancy in Alaska, we were greeted by 4 millers who shared a great variety of wisdom and insight. Last week, we revisited these mills, by sharing their stories and revealing how their insight is helping inform our vision as a Conservation Society.
We can not pretend that after having a handful of discussions with millers on POW that we know everything about logging in the Southeast. For one, we were not able to connect with Viking, the larger engineered mill that consumes the highest volume of old-growth timber, performs minimal on-site processing and whose business model currently relies on exporting a high percentage of raw or minimally processed wood. Viking also supports infrastructure on the island that enables smaller mills to stay in business. Our positions are adapting and changing and influenced by our relationships with these millers, our members, and our ideals. As we move forward, we can maximize our common ground and seek changes to timber management that give a strong foundation to this ground.
Our take-home messages were many. A handful of key themes were identified and require follow up. Defining a sustainable and responsible timber industry on the Tongass is grounded in careful forest management. The ecological integrity of our forest and its great variety of resources feed our residents and support strong industries in salmon, timber, recreation and tourism.
The great variety of multiple uses of our rainforest resources must always be balanced with, not foreshadowed by timber and unrealistic target board-foot goals.
The Forest Service needs to shift away from unsustainable timber volume targets, as ultimately this management system has failed to meet the needs of Southeast Alaskans. Instead, The focus needs to move towards what the landscape, and communities that depend on it, can sustain over the long-term.
We want timber resources used responsibly and for the highest value possible. Wood that could be turned into a mandolin or rot-resistant decking, should be recognized for its highest value use and manufactured as such. We want to support local job creation not just in the short term, but careers that can be passed to future generations within and across families. We want to empower Alaskan residents to source their wood products locally to support the vibrant and healthy local mill industry so that it can continue to grow and support rural Alaskan communities in the long term. We support the development of a timber sale structure that maximizes regional benefits and retains healthy old-growth characteristics and functions even in logged stands through selective harvests. Collectively, we must push forward timber sale structures and contracts that prioritize keeping the most money, the greatest amount of jobs and the largest amount of wood in the region that needs it, Southeast Alaska. The micro sale program, which allows the selective harvest of dead and fallen old-growth wood in proximity to specific roads, is an example of small-scale and valuable timber program that we intend to support. The success of this program depends on keeping a selection of existing roads open. We want to seek policy action and management change that will grow a healthy and sustainable, well managed timber industry on the Tongass long into the future.
Good Faith Lumber, far surpassed our expectations as far as size and workload. Good Faith is owned by three Thorne Bay residents with a combined experience in the wood industry of over 92 years! We walked around the facility and watched big beautiful slabs of old-growth lumber being planned and finished into gorgeous table tops. The employees were all busy at work water blasting gravel from the raw wood, operating heavy machinery and soaking in the opportune hot Southeast Sun. We met with Hans on his break.
"It's busy especially this time of year, it gets busy. Lots of orders coming in. People wanting to build cabins or homes you know."
We asked Hans about his history and relationship with Alaskan timber. He stressed his dedication to in-region manufacturing as opposed to wholesale export of raw lumber and job opportunities to markets outside of Alaska.
"We all have the same mindset for the future. None of us want to get rich and leave. We want to see this thing working. We want to see the wood stay here. Frankly, I'd like to not see any export at all. I'd like it all manufactured right here on the island rather than send it to Japan or wherever else but right now it's a necessary evil."
We agreed with Hans. Our valuable timber should be carefully and responsibly managed. The lumber should be used in a way that maximizes benefits to the region and our local rural communities. Rather than mass export raw products to Asian markets or companies in the lower 48, this wood can, and should be used to create jobs and valuable products right here in Southeast Alaska where jobs, and a stable economy are so desperately needed. How can we better incentivize in-region manufacturing? This is a question and goal that needs more exploration.
We continued our tour and noticed, smoke billowing out above a gravel mountain from the corner of the property. This is where waste wood is burned. Around fifty percent of a given log can be wasted and unfortunately, as it is now, these local mill operations are left to burn the leftovers. Keith Landers and Hans expressed a common guilt and sadness for burning this waste. Removing wood from the forest only to end up using half of it to fuel a continuous bonfire is a modern tragedy in the Southeast. Wasted wood can and should be used to fuel creative markets and heat homes in a region where incredibly high energy costs debilitates our economy and leaves residents scrambling to pay utility bills. This waste is not only problematic at the stage of manufacturing and processing, the floor of clearcuts and thinned forests are often littered with abandoned wood, disregarded as ‘non merchantable'.
Eliminating the waste stream in our industry requires both societal and political change. For one, building a culture that admires defect, that refuses to burn waste wood when it can be manufactured into unique and functional products. This wasted wood could also heat homes. Exploring a sustainable ‘biomass' industry that could fuel Southeast Alaska and reduce exorbitant energy costs for rural Alaskans is on the agenda of everyone from SCS and the Forest Service to the millers themselves. Four mill owners on Prince of Wales, including Keith Landers and Good Faith Lumber, are interested in partnering to turn waste wood into chips or pellets for sale to local markets. The success of a localized biomass industry, depends on regional markets. The Forest Service is exploring biomass utilization schemes. This exploration and the related initiatives have not yet trickled down into action on the ground, in the communities and across industries where it is needed.
There are a number of policy changes that can also help eliminate wood waste at its source. As it is now, the US Forest Service has a very relaxed definition of ‘merchantable' wood. This allows the winning timber sale bidder to leave behind high volumes of ‘slash' or cut and abandoned ‘unmerchantable' wood on the floor of a clearcut. Policies like this incentive our current timber culture that lags far behind the lower 48 as far as eliminating waste streams and maximizing industry efficiency per board foot.
One way to eliminate old-growth waste is by encouraging selective logging and only cutting the trees that are wanted. By leaving trees standing, rather than cutting and ultimately abandoning on the clearcut floor, this practice better protects forest structure that would otherwise be lost under a clearcut regime. In many situations, the USFS requires all trees to be cut. The resultant forest consists solely of trees of the same age. Once the canopies close, these even-aged trees block out the sun and prevent a healthy understory from growing. In order to speed growth, restore habitat diversity and improve function for deer and other wildlife, these stands are periodically thinned- often at great cost. Under a partial, selective-harvest regime, a certain percent of the multi-aged structure of the stand is retained. The resulting forest avoids complete canopy closure and the subsequent detriment to wildlife. Therefore, costly thinning procedures are no longer required and the ecological integrity of the forest prevails.
The Tongass already contains vast tracts of clearcut land and subsequent young-growth forest. Additional, mass clearcutting of our vanishing old-growth forest is wasteful and costly in both economic and environmental terms. Future old-growth harvests should focus on reducing needless waste and destruction of valuable wildlife habitat by leaving a selection of trees standing and only removing those which meet the specific needs of the logger. By being more selective and prudent in the way we harvest our forests we can achieve common goals and bridge the differences between those driven by economic and conservation goals.
We left Good Faith Lumber and stopped distracting the very busy workers from the tasks at hand. Good Faith Lumber produces large quantities of high quality dimensional lumber and their products are in high demand. We thanked Hans and his colleagues for their time and piled back in the rig to ruminate on and discuss all the insight and wisdom these delightful woodworkers shared with us.
Check back next week for the conclusion and summary of our visit to Princce of Wales.
We rolled up to our next stop to visit Keith Landers at H&L Salvage. Keith has been making shingles here for twenty years. In the last decade, H&L began manufacturing dimensional lumber as well. Landers was eager to chat and there was no shortage, or filter, to the wisdom he was willing to share about the industry, society, timber sales and even his opinion of environmentalists. When we asked him how he found himself in the Alaskan industry he smirked.
"You want to know how I came here? I came here because of the spotted owl okay."
Keith's operation in Oregon was shut down with the controversial protection of the Northern Spotted Owl. Keith didn't blame the owl, but he was concerned about environmentalists abstaining from level-headed discussions with millers and loggers. We need to obtain wood from somewhere and displacing logging activity from the United States, to say- the Amazon Tropical Rainforest is a ‘not in my backyard' attitude that doesn't tackle the roots of the problem- overuse, waste and unsustainable management. He also reminded us that unlike historical logging in Southeast Alaska, when loggers were often transient visitors who worked out of logging camps and eventually packed up and left when the season or era ended, today's workforce is here to stay.
"The people that are here now are people that are living here, this is where their family is, they purchased property, this is where they live and it's the last thing anyone wants to do here is dirty the water, dirty the air, and massive cut our forest to the point where environmentally it's hurting the animals, the water- that type of thing. The people here are very conscious about the environment and how we should handle this forest, we live here."
Like most residents of Southeast Alaska, Landers and his employees depend on the forest for more than economic prosperity.
"We invite anybody to come and visit us and see the way we see the forest. Not necessarily, do I see it strictly as as a way to make a living. There are many different uses in this forest and we use it in many different ways. From berry picking, to subsistence, we live off of this land here. We are one of the few people that are able to do that still, and we want to protect that. That is why a lot of us came here, because of the way we still get to live. We aren't really city people."
Landers let out a belly laugh and Marjorie and I nodded in unison. Most Alaskans aren't really ‘city people' after all. Recognizing our common goals is necessary for defining a sustainable timber future for the Tongass. We need to break down this false dichotomy that pits environmentalists against all development initiatives. This summer, the Tongass Advisory Committee and the Tongass Land Management Plan amendment process will put our capacity to collaborate to the test as industry representatives, environmentalists and other stakeholders discuss face to face what the future of timber on the Tongass should be. Landers stressed the importance of securing a long-term timber plan. He emphasized the particular devastation this ambiguity and uncertainty has on small mills. Uncertainty in the industry prevents small operators from investing in growth, innovation, retooling and even replacing damaged and outdated equipment that impacts productivity and poses a safety risk.
"The timber industry needs to have a twenty year plan- at least, because of the expenses involved. That guy right there, when it was new [points to excavator] costs 700,000 dollars- that's a lot of second growth and old growth…That's what I would like to see, everyone get together and try and make a decision about what we are going to do on the Tongass instead of all this uncertainty."
Of course, this constant uncertainty is also taxing on the well-being of workers and their family who are interested in continuing, growing and supporting the family business. As is the case with Landers, "My son would like to move back into the company again if we can see some longevity in the industry."
So why should we support small mills? Supporting the longevity of these operations benefits those directly involved with the mill: the owners, employees and family members. The direct impact can be pretty substantial, these operations provide quite a few stable local jobs.
"The small mills are high in employment - it takes us quite a few guys to produce a board due to the fact that we are not as efficient as an engineered mill. So, [small mills] may not have the type of payroll that some of the larger mills have but there is longevity in having more small mills than just one large mill. If one large mill goes down, the impact that it has on the communities is huge. Whereas if one small mill goes down, there's very little impact. "
As Keith points out, having a number of smaller operations not only supports more jobs. It also provides a security to rural towns that a single, large scale operation does not. In the past, when a small mill goes out of business, other operations, like H&L Salvage hire laid-off employees and pick up the slack. If large scale timber industries go under, like the giant pulp operations of the past for example, the ensuing devastation to communities is much more severe.
We toured the facility and witnessed raw lumber being sliced up and processed into shingles at the hands of specialized machines and talented woodworkers. My ears were ringing and sawdust soon coated every cranny of my camera. I started to wonder whether our Nikon warranty covers sawdust damage but was quickly distracted and refocused on the scene before me. The sheer enormity of the operation and the amount of talent and work required to turn trees into shingles was startling.
Keith gave us insight and a marked goal: how can we support these local operations, maximize benefits to our communities and minimize irreversible degradation to our environment? We need to quell the animosity between environmentalists and the timber industry, recognize our common goals and draft a timber plan.
How can we better design timber sales to support small scale local millers?
Part of that entails designing small manageable sales that attract bids from smaller operations. Michael Kampnich, Field Representative from The Nature Conservancy and our avid tour guide and mentor, explained the need for ‘no export provisions' on a selection of timber sales to level the playing field. According to Michael,
"As it is now, its apples against oranges and mill owners who want to focus on a higher percentage of local processing are at a disadvantage when bidding on sales that include an export provision."
‘No export provisions;' on targeted timber sales would incentivize in-region manufacturing of raw lumber and help small mills fairly compete for, and win, small timber sale bids. As Landers pointed out, small mills are high in employment, provide stable jobs, and use wood resources on a sustainable scale. However, many of the woodworkers we met, including Landers, stressed the important balance of larger and small mills. The larger, more engineered mills (mainly Viking Lumber) support regional infrastructure that the smaller mills, and communities more generally, depend on (e.g. barge, road systems etc.). It's a tricky balance and one that will require more thought, fieldwork and discussions in communities with a great variety of stakeholders. Understanding the impact this balance has on our forests, how we can more carefully and responsibly craft timber sales is also an important piece of the puzzle.
We thanked Landers for his wisdom, dusted ourselves (and our camera equipment) off and left R&L Salvage for our next stop, Good Faith Lumber.
We rambled down a maze of logging roads in search of the bucket Larry left by the road to signify our pulloff. Eventually, we spotted the bucket and a sedan pulled conspicuously off the gravel. We were greeted by Larry Trumble who owns and operates Wood Marine a soundboard manufacturer. Larry is intriguing. He often speaks about himself in the third person and mumbles off topic pretty regularly. All his idiosyncrasies contribute to his charm and we were eager to follow him to his worksite. We trudged behind him up the cliffside. Larry maneuvered through the forest with an unexpected agility and grace. It became clear that Larry spends a lot of time in the Tongass. We balanced behind him, filed up the trunk and along the spine of his treasured Sitka Spruce. We arrived to his ‘office' and Larry quickly began rigging up a makeshift antenna so he could access some motivational music before he began harvesting future soundboards from the spruce laying before him.
".. It's always country music," he murmured in disappointment once the sound waves hit our spot. He began to work, splitting the spruce and hammering out pieces with the occasional curse and remark about the quality of each block, "It's a pig in a poke, a pig in a poke!"
The view was inspiring. We were perched on a huge stump, balanced on a cliffside, overlooking a calm and misty afternoon settle across the Tongass and coast. The peace was quickly interrupted by the sawing and chatter of Larry. Larry wasn't used to having guests tag along; he talked incessantly. He commented how in most cases, he hikes across rough terrain and eventually camps beside his beloved spruce for the time it takes to buck it up.
The work was hard and I felt a bit guilty snapping photos and asking questions while he sweat and toiled over his woody bounty. This particular spruce will take Larry an estimated five weeks to process between chopping up the tree, packing down to the wood, processing the raw lumber into a ‘book set' for soundboards, drying and selling. Larry will salvage about six trees a year and produce from the raw lumber, valuable book sets that will be sold at a high price to a variety of guitar markers across the country. Trumble stressed the rarity of musicwood trees and emphasized how this invaluable resource should be managed to incentivize the in-region manufacturing of high value added products like soundboards.
It doesn't get more ‘small scale' than Larry. He prospects for trees alone and chops up the wood by himself. He processes and sells the boards on his own and it only takes six selectively harvested dead and down trees a year to sustain his valuable business providing musical instruments for the world. He's an atypical kind of guy, that flourishes in an atypical ‘self employed' type of business. The kind of peculiar resident that gives rural Alaska its distinct character.
Keeping characters like Larry in business requires more than just the careful management of old-growth trees. According to Larry, "The most important thing for keeping the microscale program going is keeping roads open."
The US Forest Service intends to close fifty percent of existing roads across the region. These musicwood businesses operate under the US Forest Service's microsale program and as Larry points out, depend on access to old-growth stands in timber designated areas to prospect and find appropriate dead wood that meet the stringent qualifications for musicwood.
The microsale program is a valuable timber initiative that facilitates the extraction of high value products from fallen trees within a short distance of particular road systems. Programs of this scale and minor environmental disturbance should be supported and efforts taken to prevent subsistence loggers like Larry, who obey all protocols and responsibly extract a high value product from dead trees on an already disturbed roadside, from being forced out of business. Existing roads that the Forest Service made, are depended on by Larry and other residents and businesses across the region. This is particularly evident on Prince of Wales. A careful selection of existing roads should be maintained for sustainable timber microsales and to maintain access into forest stands for management activities such as silvicultural thinning and restorative restoration. Instead of focusing efforts on building additional roads, the Forest Service could instead maintain the ones we have. The specific roads that access timber designated areas, support a valuable and diverse microsale industry that is becoming increasingly relevant on the Tongass as large-scale mass timber harvests subside and small, value added, innovative woodworking enterprises flourish.
We left Larry to his work and jumped into our rig. As we drove past, we could hear a chainsaw firing up somewhere hidden in the treeline. Musicwood producers on Prince of Wales Island showed us how you can flip an astonishing profit from the careful use of a small amount of dead old-growth spruce. We left the glamorous world of musicwood behind and headed next to a mill where we would learn a thing or two about shingles, dimensional lumber and spotted owls. Tune in tomorrow.