The Tongass Tightrope: Balancing Diverse Interests By Committee

Aerial view of Tongass National Forest. (Creative Commons Photo by Alan Wu)
Aerial view of Tongass National Forest. (Creative Commons Photo by Alan Wu)

For three days last week, a few dozen people holed up in a Travelodge conference room in Juneau. There was coffee and donuts, PowerPoint presentations and an easel with big sheets of scratch paper. It was the second in a series of meeting that the Tongass Advisory Committee has leading up to its May deadline to produce its recommendations.

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Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the timber industry, state government, local communities, tribal entities and conservationists on the committee are trying to work out policies that will let them all sustainably coexist. Their mutually shared mantra is what they’re calling the “triple bottom line”–ecological, social and economic sustainability in the Tongass National Forest.

One of their directives from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is to transition the timber industry to harvesting only the Tongass’s young growth, that is, trees that have grown back in areas previously logged or disturbed.

“It is going to be a huge challenge to make a financially viable industry with 200,000 acres of young growth on a 17 million acre forest,” says Tongass Advisory Committee member Eric Nichols. He’s part owner of Ketchikan’s Alcan Forest Products Inc. and Evergreen Timber.“The land base, it’s going to be a huge impact, in that you’ve got to have the land base to grow the trees.”

“And the more we shrink this land base, the higher probability of failure you have.”

Thorne Bay’s timber sale

If the committee is successful and the Forest Service adopts its policy recommendations, it should head off the kind of legal wrangling that the community of Thorne Bay is on the sidelines of now.

Big Thorne timber sale map
Big Thorne timber sale map

Thorne Bay is a community of about 500 on Prince of Wales Island. It’s part of a census area that consistently has the highest unemployment rates in Southeast Alaska. Its economy used to be dominated by the timber industry. Nowadays, Wayne Benner says it’s down to “about a half a dozen small little working mills, ma-and-pa mills.”

Benner is the advisory committee’s co-chair and Thorne Bay city administrator.

“(We) definitely want to make sure they continue on, and have the ability to survive and prosper,” Benner says. “And at the same time, all the other uses of the Tongass National Forest are preserved so that the other entities, the lodges, people coming to hunt and coming to fish, also have the opportunity to enjoy ’em.”

Benner says his government hasn’t formally taken a position on the Forest Service’s controversial Big Thorne timber sale, which could be a boon to the local economy but would destroy thousands of acres of old growth forest.

The timber sale may not be ecologically or economically sustainable, according to Earthjusticeand the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. They’re part of a coalition of conservation groups fighting the timber sale in court.

A conservation-based economy 

Back at the Travelodge, community interests are getting a lot of attention, says Jason Anderson, deputy forest supervisor for the Tongass.

“Despite the difference of interests at the table, there’s a collective interest in doing good stewardship of the land as it benefits communities. There’s probably some difference of opinion of how that’s going to look, but the value of having them all at the table and hashing all that out, that’s really in my opinion the value in having an advisory committee.”

Lynn Jungwirth is the other co-chair of the committee. She brings lessons from her home in Hayfork, California, a town of 2,200 in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. She says in the timber wars back home, both the industry and the conservation groups were powerful. When they fought it out, the communities got caught in the crossfire.

“So while the conservation industry might stop a sale in order to harm industry, we’re the people who lost our homes, lost our equipment, lost our jobs. We kind of thought, well, you know, we need to get together and have a voice, because this is a transition time. We have got to stop pitting conservation against economy and build a conservation-based economy.”

Thorne Bay City Administrator Wayne Benner says even if the committee fails, the learning and perspective is valuable.

“If nothing comes out of it, everybody goes back to where they’ve come from, they’re going to take back a little different vision of how the different entities and agencies really look at managing resources.”

The Tongass Advisory Committee plans to meet monthly until its work is complete.