June 28, 2013
Mr. Forrest Cole
USDA Forest Service
Tongass National Forest Five-Year Review
648 Mission Street
Ketchikan, AK 99901
Re: Tongass National Forest Five-Year Review
Dear Mr. Cole:
The Resource Development Council (RDC) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on the Five-Year Review of the 2008 Tongass National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (TLMP).
RDC is a statewide non-profit business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, forest products, fisheries and tourism industries. RDC’s membership also includes Alaska Native corporations, local communities, organized labor and industry-support firms. RDC’s purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.
A major goal of RDC is to build a more diverse and vibrant economy in Southeast Alaska through the restoration of a fully integrated forest products industry and a vibrant mining sector. The economic benefits of mining and a fully integrated forest industry to residents, local communities, and the State of Alaska is good reason to amend the 2008 TLMP. Flourishing forest and mining industries should be a cornerstone of any amended plan, given the pressing economic needs of the region and local residents, and the fact that both industries have demonstrated coexistence with wildlife and fish.
The Tongass National Forest (TNF) is well known for its timber resource base, but the forest is also rich in other resources essential to society. There are 52 areas totaling 589,000 acres within the national forest containing identified mineral resources. Of the identified mineral tracts, 377,000 acres have high mineral potential. In addition, there are 6.6 million acres of potential, but undiscovered mineral resources within the TNF. Development of these resources could help diversify the economy and provide opportunities beyond forest products, fishing and tourism, especially when litigation often prevails over timber sales.
With Southeast Alaska experiencing a significant economic downturn due to the sharp reduction in access to federal timber, any new economic activity, such as mining, that promises to bring in high-paying jobs should be actively encouraged by the Forest Service. The Forest Service should take proactive steps to ensure that potential exploration activities will not face unnecessary roadblocks and complications.
The goal of many Alaskans is to seek a more diverse and strong economy in Southeast Alaska. Forestry and mining are key to reaching that goal. For the forest industry, an adequate long-term supply of economic timber from the TNF is absolutely essential if the industry is to play a major role in rebuilding the region’s economy. Thousands of direct and indirect year-round jobs would result and local communities would receive significant, ongoing economic stimulus.
THE TNF IS A WORKING FOREST, NOT A NATIONAL PARK
Our federal national forests were established under a working forest model. Unlike the national parks that were established for preservation, the national forests were established under the authority of the Organic Administration Act of 1897 to conserve water flows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber and other resources for the American people. The notion of the working forest has been with us for over a century.
A working forest is one that recognizes the human component of our forest, incentivizes workforce development and local jobs, while providing opportunities to enhance wildlife habitat, recreation, and subsistence activities. A working forest provides many benefits to local communities and is a cornerstone of their economies.
As our nation grew and demands on our forests increased, additional acts of Congress refined but did not supersede the Organic Act. The 1960 Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act added outdoor recreation, range, fish, and wildlife to the balance of national forest uses. The 1976 National Forest Management Act (NFMA) established a framework for forest planning, however, nowhere did Congress alter the fundamental mandate to balance water, timber, mining, recreation, range, fish, and wildlife.
For decades, the TNF was managed as a working forest, and the Southeast Alaska economy thrived. The forest industry was one of the largest economic sectors in Alaska with 4,600 jobs, mostly spread throughout the Southeast Panhandle. Large manufacturing facilities, including two major pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan, were major anchors of the region’s economy and local tax base. Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, up to 520 million board feet (mmbf) of timber could be harvested each year, which was still under what the forest could sustain in perpetuity.
However, the industry has undergone a major transformation in the past 20 years with new land withdrawals and adverse public policy decisions sharply curtailing the timber supply to local mills. Today the pulp mills are gone and there is only one medium-size sawmill remaining in the region, and it’s struggling for survival. According to the Alaska Department of Labor, statewide there were only 364 people directly employed in forestry and logging jobs last year. There were an additional 220 wood products and manufacturing jobs.
Today, only four percent of the entire TNF is available for harvest. Of the forested commercial-grade timber, six percent is available for logging. Over the past 100 years, only seven percent or approximately 430,000 acres of the total productive old-growth timber have been logged in the TNF. Only 15 percent of the highest volume stands has been harvested, while about 85 percent of the forest’s largest old-growth remains untouched.
Under the federal government’s current management direction, the TNF is likely to produce little in the way of resources to support local economies. Changes to TLMP have trumped the congressional mandate to provide for the needs of citizens and communities. The evolution of forest management has effectively redefined the very purpose for which the national forests were established, in direct contradiction to the congressional intent. Although the TNF was established as a working forest, today it is being managed more like a national park.
THE 2008 TLMP IS NOT WORKING AND MUST BE AMENDED
Due to the implementation of major federal government policy changes that have been overlain on TLMP since it was promulgated, the 2008 amended plan must be revised. These policy changes have materially affected the plan and were made outside the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Major changes include:
- The 2001 Roadless Rule was applied to the previously exempt TNF by Court Order in March 2011. By restricting road access and prohibiting timber harvest within 9.6 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs), the 2001 Roadless Rule has made the 2008 Amended TLMP Timber Sale Program Adaptive Management Strategy (TAMS) impossible to implement.
- Application of the Roadless Rule has severely restricted access to mineral, timber, and renewable energy resources, if not as a practical matter preventing future development and harvesting.
- The elevation of virtually all local decision-making on IRAs in the TNF to the Chief of the Forest Service has brought national politics into the decision-making process and has altered assumptions upon which the TLMP was promulgated in January 2008. The Forest Supervisor and district rangers had previously made decisions on such issues as issuance of a Special Use Permit in IRAs. When this change occurred, the Washington office of the Forest Service could arbitrarily and capriciously refuse to allow a project in an IRA – even when the TNF was still exempt from the Roadless Rule.
- The May 2010 decision to immediately transition from the 2008 Amended TLMP Timber Sale Program Adaptive Management Strategy of harvesting old-growth timber on roaded areas and low and moderate value IRAs to harvesting young-growth timber in roaded areas of the TNF.
The Secretary of Agriculture and the Forest Service have made it clear to TNF officials that reasonable access for mineral exploration, logging, and renewable energy power site development within IRAs will be restricted, if not outright prohibited. Given 9.6 million acres of IRAs and 5.6 million acres of Wilderness surround nearly every potential project in the TNF, the impact of this policy is devastating and strikes a severe blow to balanced multiple use management.
These and other policy changes have significantly altered the amended 2008 TLMP and require a formal plan amendment to restore multiple use management in the forest and provide new economic opportunities for local communities and residents. RDC members will be harmed by their inability to obtain the access necessary to harvest timber, prospect, explore for and develop new mines in IRAs, and by their inability to access renewable energy resources to provide potentially less expensive, non-carbon power to local communities and remote resource development sites.
Accordingly, RDC joins the Alaska Miners Association (AMA) in proposing the following amendments be made to the Forest Plan:
- Consistent with its 2003 settlement with the State of Alaska, the Forest Service should engage in rulemaking to once again exempt the TNF from the 2001 Roadless Rule. On March 4, 2011, the District Court of Alaska found the July 15, 2003 Rulemaking to be legally insufficient. Clearly, the settlement parties did not intend that a defective rule would satisfy the commitments made in the Settlement Agreement. The Court’s 2011 decision resulted in the terms of the Settlement Agreement not being fulfilled. As a result, the rulemaking needs to be done again to resolve the legal issues raised by the Court. The Forest Service must fulfill a legal obligation made to the State of Alaska pursuant to a Court-approved settlement agreement.
- A Mineral and Strategic Mineral Land Use Designation (LUD) should be added to the 2008 Forest Plan to promote and support mineral and strategic mineral development and related access roads consistent with National Security and National Strategic Mineral Policies. The Mineral and Strategic Mineral LUD would take precedence over any underlying LUD (subject to applicable laws) regardless of whether the underlying LUD is an “Avoidance LUD” or not. As such, it would represent a “window” through the underlying LUD through which minerals and strategic minerals could be accessed and developed.
- The term “reasonable access” should be defined for purposes of the Forest Plan to provide timely (30 day turnaround) issuance of Forest Service Special Use Permits for those that hold a mining claim or Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) preliminary permit to authorize these operations to investigate and develop lawfully permitted federal resources.
- A Renewable Energy Development LUD should be added to the Forest Plan to promote and support all forms of renewable energy development (including geothermal) and related transmission lines within the TNF, consistent with Public Laws and national security and national energy policies. The Renewable Energy Development LUD would take precedence over any underlying LUD (subject to applicable laws) regardless of whether the underlying LUD is an “Avoidance LUD” or not. As such, it would represent a “window” through the underlying LUD through which renewable resources could be accessed and developed.
- The current Transportation and Utility System (TUS) LUD should be amended to change the criteria to allow the TUS LUD to apply to hydropower projects and other renewable energy projects within TUS Avoidance Areas and to allow for public and private hydropower development in all LUDs.
- LUDs should be amended to change the criteria to allow the TUS LUD to apply to hydropower projects and other renewable energy projects within TUS Avoidance Areas and to allow for public and private hydropower development in all LUDs.
- The Chief of the Forest Service should re-delegate to the Forest Supervisor and District Rangers on the TNF the authority to make permitting decisions within IRAs; and
- The Forest Plan should include a new LUD called the “Tongass Community Economic Development Zone LUD” to promote and support economic development and activities on the TNF for any community that has lower than average State per capita income or pays higher than the national average for electricity to assure that the plan’s administration and practices promote economic well-being and social justice in all TNF communities.
AMENDED TLMP SHOULD PROVIDE RELIABLE SUPPLY OF ECONOMIC TIMBER
RDC strongly supports the restoration of a fully integrated forest products manufacturing industry in Southeast Alaska. It is essential that the forest products industry have the capability to manufacture every species, size and quality of commercial timber that is harvested in the region. The forest plan amendment can be the vehicle to achieve this goal by providing an adequate, reliable supply of economic timber to the industry.
As the 2008 TLMP Amendment was being prepared, the timber industry, many of the local communities, several economists, and the Forest Service all agreed that a federal timber harvest level at or above 350 mmbf annually was necessary to sustain a fully-intergrated manufacturing industry. The communities of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Wrangell passed resolutions in support of a harvest level of 360 mmbf, as did the State of Alaska, and Southeast Conference.
Yet the 2008 TLMP made available only 267 mmbf of timber on an annual basis. Further, the Forest Service's own economic analysis indicated that only 18% of the old-growth stands selected for harvest under the plan could support economically-viable timber sales. To make matters worse, the TAM was incorporated into the amended plan, limiting the stands available for timber harvest and reducing the available timber volume to about 151 mmbf annually. Instead, the timber harvest has fallen to under 30 mmbf annually – 21 mmbf last year.
Many of the areas the Forest Service selected for harvest under the 2008 plan were steep, high elevation slopes where it costs more than double to log. In the past the Forest Service would balance high-cost harvest areas with lower-cost areas, and the result would be an economic mix of timber stands. The 2008 plan has insufficient lower-cost areas to balance against the high-cost offerings. As a result, the agency has been challenged in implementing its timber sale program, and it has failed, as expected. Two of the three mid-size mills that were operating in 2008 are now closed due to a lack of timber. Many jobs have been lost and families have been dislocated.
In response to serious concerns about timber sale economics and low timber sale offerings, the Forest Service in 2008 agreed to prepare and offer four 10-year timber sales. These sales were intended to provide a stable volume of timber that would justify investments in manufacturing facilities and equipment. The target volumes were estimated at 15 to 20 mmbf annually for ten years (150 to 200 mmbf total). Although the Big Thorne timber sale is planned for later this year, no other sales have been prepared.
RDC joins the Alaska Forest Association (AFA) in urging the Forest Service to honor its commitment to prepare and offer four 10-year timber sales. In its comments on the TLMP Five-Year Review, AFA noted the Forest Service's management on the TNF is so overly protective of IRAs and conservation goals to the detriment of other forest uses that the agency is violating governing laws that require a more balanced approach to multiple use management. We couldn’t agree more.
RDC also urges the Forest Service to make available at least 350 mmbf of timber annually. This level of timber harvest, which is far less than the 520 mmbf set by Congress under ANILCA, is achievable if the agency makes a suitable selection of timberlands available and maintains reasonable standards and guidelines for its timber sale program.
One example of such timberland selection is portrayed in Exhibits 1 and 2 of AFA’s June 27, 2013 comments on the TLMP Five-Year Review. The example utilizes about 1.8 million acres of average, suitable timberlands. Managing these lands as envisioned by the geo-spatial timeline conservation strategy, whereby the land base is managed for all resource objectives simultaneously, takes advantage of forest dynamics and the capabilities of individual forest stands to meet varied resource objectives over time. AFA noted the strategy maintains fish and wildlife habitat and increases biodiversity across the forest while also supporting a viable timber manufacturing industry. All of these outcomes would be in the public interest.
Taking into consideration TNF conservation strategies, harvest levels of 350 mmbf are sustainable over the long term and match well with the needs of an integrated and competitive manufacturing industry. According to AFA, this harvest level “will support up to three modern sawmills and provide the level of sawmill and forest residuals to enable the addition of a range of viable, smaller specialty plants, including biomass to bioenergy, green veneer, LVL lumber and possibly a small MDF plant. In addition, with a larger harvest level there are significantly increased opportunities for small, specialty sawmills and value-added wood product manufacturers, as well as for equipment suppliers and service groups.”
With the reinstatement of the Roadless Rule in the TNF, more than 95 percent of the forest is now closed to logging. The five percent of the forest that is not impacted by the Roadless Rule is too small to support the harvest level needed for a fully integrated manufacturing industry. As noted earlier in these comments, the Forest Service must honor its 2003 settlement agreement to exempt the TNF from the Roadless Rule by correcting the error made in the promulgating the exemption.
TOO SOON TO TRANSITION TO YOUNG GROWTH
Shortly after the 2008 plan was adopted, the State and the Forest Service began a joint effort to help prepare federal timber sales. That effort stagnated after the Forest Service was directed by the Obama administration to impose its “restoration economy” and limit most logging to young- growth timber, even though TNF second growth is mostly 30 to 40 years from maturity.
After about 80 to 100 years, the maximum growth capacity of second-growth stands is reached and the trees are large enough to be profitably milled into lumber. At maturity, a stand of trees will have four to five times more merchantable volume as it does now – just 30 years after forest regeneration of the second growth started.
Forcing a premature transition to young-growth will reduce the future timber yields and will force closure of mills because most of the young growth is currently too small to be profitable. Further, there are not yet enough acres of young growth to sustain the industry even when the trees are finally mature. According to AFA, a 360 mmbf harvest level in mature young-growth (about 90 to 100-years of age) can be sustained on about 1.0 to 1.8 million acres of commercial timberland. However, there is currently only about 430,000 acres of young-growth in the TNF. Consequently, RDC agrees with AFA that the industry needs to continue harvesting old-growth until it has sufficient acreage converted to young-growth and those trees have had time to mature. The supply of second growth in any significant quantities is at least 20 to 30 years out.
The development of a young-growth industry in Southeast Alaska would require total retooling of existing sawmills or building of new mills. Investors are not willing to trust government assurances that it will be able to deliver sustainable supplies of young-growth timber because almost 50 percent of the Tongass young growth is tied up in roadless and other administrative withdrawals. And most timber tied up in these withdrawals is the oldest young growth available.
PERCEPTION IS NOT REALITY
Environmental groups, and some in the federal administration, want to replace the forest industry with a restoration economy. Their idea is to restore ‘impacted watersheds’ and ‘old-growth conditions’ across the forest, even though less than ten percent of the commercial forestland has ever been harvested. Today there is little that needs restoring. The Forest Service did a good job managing the forest in past years.
Fish populations in the region have increased over the past 50 years and have more than doubled in some areas, particularly in the most heavily logged watersheds. Likewise, wildlife populations are stable or increasing. Most acres have regenerated and second-growth trees are maturing as projected.
The assumption that a disproportionate amount of high volume, large trees has been logged is also wrong. Looking back at the decades of logging in the TNF, there was only a seven-year period when the Forest Service selected a disproportionate amount of high-volume stands. From 1976 through 1983, the Forest Service targeted higher volume stands in order to minimize road amortization, which was skyrocketing as a result of clear-cut size limitations imposed by the National Forest Management Act.
However, beginning in 1984, the agency adopted a policy requiring the harvest of volume class stands in proportion to their natural occurrence in each watershed. Consequently, from the 1970s through the 1990s, the average log diameter from the TNF harvest was only ten inches. Further, an analysis of the agency’s forest inventory plot data in 2007 indicated that the percentage of large tree plots was very similar at both low and high elevations sites of the TNF.
RDC urges the Forest Service to acknowledge and consider these points in the five-year review.
The industry continues to struggle due primarily to the uncertain timber supply. It has been so long since the industry had a reliable long-term timber supply that most of its skilled workers and facilities are gone and the economy of scale has grown so small that it is hard for the industry to be competitive.
However, the gloomy situation can be turned around. With an adequate long-term supply of timber, industry can make significant investments in manufacturing and quickly ramp up its operations. These investments can be made by private industry without government funding. All that is needed is an adequate supply of suitable, economic timber.
Through the TLMP Five-Year Review, the time has come to ensure that the young growth forests are returned to the commercial forest timber base and that a reliable supply of old growth is set aside for harvest until young growth reaches maturity.
RDC endorses the comments of both the Alaska Forest Association and the Alaska Miners Association. We stand ready to participate in the TLMP Five-Year Review process and appreciate the opportunity to comment.
With its immense natural resources, the TNF has the potential to be the cornerstone of the Southeast Alaska economy, providing jobs and economic opportunities to local communities and residents. The mining and forest products industries have proven they can coexist with the fishing and tourism industries. Adherence to modern environmental and forestry laws and standards will continue to prevent major impacts on fish and wildlife, both of which are healthy and thriving.
Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.