Environmentalists say Tongass plan doesn’t act fast enough

A federal proposal to make Southeast Alaska’s logging industry sustainable while preserving old growth in the Tongass National Forest does too little, too slowly–according to one conservation group.

Download Audio

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

The Oregon-based Geos Institute says the Tongass National Forest draft plan is out of step with a global agreement to reduce climate change.

President Obama visited Alaska back in September to see the effects of climate change firsthand.

Then, a few months later, the U.S. joined about 195 nations in signing the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

The president has made reducing carbon emissions a talking point during his time in office.

“But his administration puts forth a plan that’s not ambitious enough,” says Dominick DellaSala, scientist at the Geos Institute. What he’s referring to is the draft timber plan for the Tongass, which is open for public comment until February.

In a nutshell, the federal plan outlines dramatically reducing old-growth logging. While ensuring a sustainable supply of young-growth trees. The problem, DellaSala says, is the plan isn’t aggressive enough.

“Those acres of trees over time being cut down would be equivalent to 4 million additional cars on Alaska roads every year”…. Over a time span of 100 years.

The Geos Institute has been crunching their numbers with Forest Service data. DellaSala believes the transition from old- to young-growth logging could be done in five years, rather than 16. That’s what the plan is proposing.

DellaSala says trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere like a sponge. Essentially, a big stick of carbon.

“Now unfortunately, when a tree does fall in a forest and if it’s done by logging, you’re going to lose about 80 percent of that stored carbon.”

Eventually, when it decomposes, it goes up into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. And with old-growth trees, DellaSala says you get more carbon.

With the Paris Climate Change Agreement, leaders came up with guidelines to slow global warming. They pledged to protect forests, like the Tongass.

“So it’s absolutely critical to everyone’s future that we keep those temperatures below that 4-degree Fahrenheit tipping point that most scientists believe that all hell will break loose in terms of climate change.”

But not everyone shares DellaSala’s point of view.

“You know, I don’t really give a damn about the Paris, what they did over there with climate change.”

Owen Graham is the executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. A timber industry group. He thinks the Tongass draft plan already transitions to young-growth trees too soon. Any sooner could be devastating.

“That’ll put the local sawmills out of business. And it seems kind of pointless. it’s just cutting the trees early and exporting them.”

He says most mills in the area can’t process the less valuable product. So the trees would likely be shipped overseas or down South. The loss of hundreds of regional jobs.

“The industry that we’ve had in Southeast Alaska has never been a big industry despite what you hear from some of the environmental groups. …We’ve never been a big industry and we’ve never had a significant impact on anything, let alone global warming.”

Dominick DellaSala says the goal of his report isn’t to reduce jobs. It’s to find alternatives.

“I think we need to demonstrate that with a pilot study that these young trees can be processed locally, they can add jobs and they can have value to them.”

Forest Service reps said they need more time to review DellaSala report before commenting. But he says the clock is ticking. As the president is wrapping up his term…

“This is not a legacy gift to Alaskans when we still have this much old growth on the table.”

How much old growth is on the table? According to the plan, more than 43,000 acres by about the year 2117.

That sounds like a lot. But it’s about 0.25 percent of the entire Tongass.