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.
Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.
Investigating a Responsible Timber Industry on the Tongass: A Conservationist’s Perspective (1 of 6 part series)
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) formed almost fifty years ago when citizens banded together to take grassroots action to protect the natural environment of Southeast Alaska. Massive clearcuts were threatening our quality of life and the ecological integrity of our forests. Startlingly, the majority of these huge stands of temperate rainforest spruce and hemlock was being pulverized into pulp- hardly the best use of our globally rare and awe-inspiring trees. The pulp days brought transient economic stimulation and left behind clearcuts, impaired forest systems and rural communities desperate for sustainable economic stimulation and a more responsible timber industry.
Compared to the pulp behemoths of yesterday, the current logging scene on the Tongass is almost unrecognizable. Because the most economical, highest quality, and easiest to access trees have been cut, today's timber industry is much smaller in size and scope. Tongass lumber is being used for products beyond pulp such as soundboards for guitars, dimensional lumber, shingles, and furniture.
The work of the Sitka Conservation Society is also changing. We work in a new atmosphere on the Tongass, where stakeholders prioritize the forging of collaborative partnerships to tackle regional challenges and capitalize on regional opportunity.
The need to promote a land management regime that represents sustainability, rather than the ‘boom-and-bust' mentality of the past, in recognized as critical to the long-term prosperity of communities in Southeast Alaska. The composition of our forest is also changing. Clearcut areas are becoming commercially viable young-growth stands while old-growth forests become increasingly rare in the region and across the globe. The Tongass announced its Transition Framework in 2011, with the intent of moving forest management from an unsustainable and myopic focus on old-growth harvest to young-growth management and a more holistic approach to governing the Tongass.
Andrew Thoms, executive director for SCS, has been named a member of the Tongass Federal Advisory Committee and SCS staff are busy meeting community members, recording interests, ground truthing timber harvests, and digging deeper and wider to understand timber on the Tongass. We intend to use these experiences, insight, values, and ideals to help inform the Tongass Advisory Committee process as it shapes future Tongass management. Our guiding question is simple:
How can we maximize local benefits to our communities here in the Southeast while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love. How do we ensure long-term ecological integrity and renewable resource returns?
Easy enough, right? Wrong. Answering this question is no easy task. The stakeholders are many, the ways of achieving this are endless and the goal itself is a spectrum. As daunting a course this is, we are dedicated to the cause.
To ground our vision as conservationists, it is necessary to step beyond conventional norms and walk among the lumberjacks and millers for a while. How is old-growth lumber being used, processed and manufactured on the Tongass today? We grabbed our field notebooks, left our insulated and cozy home of Sitka, hopped on a Harris Airplane and flew to Prince of Wales Island (POW) where the action is.
Prince of Wales Island: Where the action is
Unlike Sitka and much of Southeast Alaska, POW is criss-crossed with roads, old logging roads to be specific. The network of asphalt connects the towns of POW as it winds through old-growth stands, clear cuts, over rivers, along estuaries, through valleys, and over mountain passes. Our travel guide was Michael Kampnich, the Field Representative for The Nature Conservancy on Prince of Wales. Kampnich arrived to Alaska in the 1980's to log. He found a home in the area and never left. Kampnich has built a relationship with a few of the mills here on POW. Michael has a high regard for the effort it takes to operate and maintain these mills. Owners aren't in an office directing others, they're running the sawmill or operating one of the many pieces of equipment necessary to produce a shingle, a board or a piece of trim. Most of them are acquainted with Michael, and for that reason they were willing to break away from their busy schedule to chat with Marjorie and I.
Tune in tomorrow to meet Brent and Annette Cole ofAlaska Specialty Woods. This family of musicwood producers has more than just a great story to share, check in to oogle at their gorgeous 2,800 year old 'Ancient Sitka Line' of soon-to-be guitars.
The Dargon point Timber sale was offered on May 10, 2014. Prospective bidders are given 30 days to respond in a sealed bid process. The estimated value, as appraised by the USFS appraisal system, for the 4,520 mbf* of young-growth timber offered was $440,035.85. The official sale and opening of the bids was held on June 10, 2014 with four bids received as follows:
- Frontier Inc. $ 797,915.00
- Good Faith Lumber $ 682,800.00
- SEALASKA Corp. $ 626,236.00
- Dahlstrom Lumber $ 470,000.00
So what's the big deal? To understand the issues, let's start form the beginning. The Dargon Point timber sale is a young-growth timber harvest involving 57.7 acres on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. This sale presents a unique, new economic opportunity and is one of the first of its kind in SE Alaska. The sale provides large expanses of valuable and viable young-growth timber accessible by road, a characteristic uncommon in remote Alaska.
Dargon Point and the Transition Framework
The Dargon Point sale is significant because of the opportunity to stimulate the Tongass Transition and promote resilient, sustainable and economically diverse Southeast Alaskan communities by catalyzing in-region business development, in-region manufacture of value-added products, and more value-per-board-foot. However, the same threat still exists, the exportation of the long-term benefits, along with jobs and profits, overseas. The size, logistical ease and value of the sale has attracted the attention of large-scale lumber exporters, primarily in Asian markets.
Dargon Point represents a real opportunity to stimulate economic diversification in the region. The Tongass Transition Framework was put forward by the US Department of Agriculture in 2010 with the support of communities, tribes, and entities throughout the region. The framework was initiated to stimulate job creation, address the dwindling supply of old-growth timber, and transition Southeast Alaska into a sustainable, economically diverse region with a healthy young-growth timber industry.
A large component of the Tongass transition involves moving the region out of old-growth timber harvest and into young-growth management. The outcome of the Dargon Point sale can set a promising precedent for the future of young-growth sales and stimulate a successful integrated transition.
Outdated Policy and Practices:In 2012, during the NEPA scoping process, Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole promised expansive regional benefits
"The project will be pretty wide-ranging in its impacts, from improving forest health and wildlife habitat to providing sawlogs to mills and job opportunities for local contractors…If approved, the young-growth volume will diversify the current Southeast Alaska timber industry".However, these "wide-ranging" local impacts are unlikely to be realized if Cole, the US Forest Service and the region fail to address shortcomings in the current timber appraisal system. The existing appraisal system virtually eliminates local businesses by making it near impossible for small-scale miller operations to realistically compete with timber exporters. Timber sale layouts, offerings, harvest timing, and size, could be carried out in a responsible manner that encourages business investment, job growth, and value-added manufacturing in Alaska. As it stands, the appraisal system does not fully capture the value that young-growth timber offers our region, nor does it catalyze local development.
This system needs to be reformed or amended to realistically support the values and goals of the Tongass Transition and value local processors for a young-growth industry. Alaska Region 10 is undoubtedly unique and has logistical, cultural and historical differences that need to be reflected in the governance of its natural resources. The system needs to encourage business investment and business development.
In the last decade, the USFS has fore fronted the need to collaborate with partners as it realizes its mission across the United States. Many regional entities have been collaborating effectively with the USFS, local mills, schools, contractors, and businesses to ensure an efficient young-growth process that supports job creation, capacity building, economic diversification and a healthy future for our young-growth industry. For instance, the Nature Conservancy's retooling loan fund intends to aid regional mills in building infrastructure for processing young growth. The Sitka Conservation Society has worked with partners to build young-growth community assets, test business plans and understand the best-use of young-growth wood.
All of these activities are in line with the USDA's Strikeforce initiative, a "commitment to growing economies, increasing investments and creating opportunities in poverty-stricken rural communities". While Strikeforce and the Transition Framework support economic growth and a smaller scale timber industry suitable for SE Alaska, there is a marked disconnect between these initiatives and the sales being planned and offered. The success of the transition and the full, long-term benefits of our combined work cannot be realized without legitimate access to young-growth timber for local mills and businesses. The next major collaboration may be one that explores and evaluates the timber appraisal system and the goals of the US Forest Service. Do they want to develop and support a timber sale program that is appropriate to the scale and needs of Region 10? Or will it remain business as usual with our resources exported for others to profit from them.
Dargon Point: The Bottom Line:All of these issues are evident when reviewing the bids put forth for the Dargon Point sale. In addition to the notable variety of bid amounts, one thing is evident; multiple buyers all see a value in young-growth timber. However, this is likely due to the export market value. The USFS needs to follow suit and start valuing timber resources in a way that affords SE Alaska a future in young-growth timber. According to Keith Rush, Forester with The Nature Conservancy
"Alaska uses about 80 million board feet of lumber every year. Almost all of this is young-growth lumber shipped up from the lower 48. Some of this could and should be processed locally."If the appraisal calculator were reflective of actual regional needs and the value of local resources, we would already be doing just that. In-region processing must be represented in the appraisal system, if not promoted over export. Young-growth is a forest resource that is valuable and we should be moving the transition forward by investing in young-growth opportunities.
The solution is two-fold, first the USFS should design and offer young-growth sales that are scaled to benefit local processing rather than attract export companies. This means sales of less than 1 MMBF. Secondly, designing and offering young-growth sales located on the existing road systems for local processing only will enable smaller outfits to be competitive in the bidding process.
Understanding ‘The Tongass Transition': What It Means for Our BackyardMaybe 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." [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.
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.
[emailpetition id="5"] 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 Bill Thomason Mel Cooke Good Faith Lumber Keith Landers H & L salvage S&S Contractors Baranof Island Brewing Company SCS members, staff, interns and volunteers
Scaling local projects to achieve regional impact!
The Sitka Conservation Society has entered a strategic partnership with the Tongass National Forest to engage local communities in the assessment of the habitat restoration projects on Twelvemile Creek, Prince of Wales Island.
In Sitka over the past several years, we have developed the capacity and partnerships to engage our community in pro-active natural resource stewardship. This has included developing a program to implement and study the effects of projects that restore fish and wildlife habitat damaged from past logging practices, developing K-12 and university curriculum materials for salmon habitat, and getting students and volunteers out in the field conducting ecological studies and collecting information that will be used by resource managers such as the US Forest Service.
Funding that has made this work possible include the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, the National Forest Foundation (NFF), and SCS members. Now we have the opportunity to work with the US Forest Service to bring these types of programs to communities on Prince of Wales Island. Funding will be provided by the National Forest Foundation. So by leveraging capacity and funding sources, we and our partners will have the opportunity tobolster and enhance watershed and fisheries programs across Southeast Alaska, and engage communities all along the way. Other partners and participants will include the Universities of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, and schools on Prince of Wales Island.
SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms: "This funding helps us take successful initiatives we have begun in Sitka to integrate stakeholders, community members, and students in Tongass Forest management to other communities and places on the Forest."
The program on Prince of Wales will use a "Triple-Bottom-Line" approach to help build socially, economically, and environmentally resilient communities.
Environment: Working with the Tongass National Forest, we will operate a seasonal non-lethal trap to count and assess salmon smolt that are migrating out of the Twelvemile Creek Watershed on Prince of Wales Island. Collecting this type of data is critical for evaluating the effectiveness of habitat restoration activities. The USFS Tongass National Forest, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Forest Foundation, conducted restoration work on this creek over the past few years to restore salmon spawning and rearing habitat impacted by past logging activities. This monitoring project will be an integral part of the Watershed Restoration Effectiveness Monitoring Program of the Tongass National Forest.
Economic: The Tongass National Forest produces an average of 28% of Alaska's annual commercial salmon harvest. Because salmon support 1 in 10 jobs in Southeast Alaska and create an economic impact of $1 billion dollars in the regional economy, projects that protect and restore salmon runs are of critical importance to Southeast Alaska communities.
Economic (part 2): In partnership with the UAS Fisheries Technology Program, local youth will also have vocational training opportunities as interns working at the fish trap, along with receiving career and educational counseling from fisheries professionals - possibly leading to careers as resource managers in the backyards where they grew up.
Social: Teachers and students from Prince of Wales communities will take part in classroom-based Salmon Curriculum and outdoor-based Steam Team activities. Stream Team is a statewide program where students collect field data to assess water quality and stream health.