New road and landowner collaboration key to harvesting young growth Tongass timber

The U.S. Forest Service is also looking at harvesting young growth on Kosciusko Island in the Southeast region. (Photo by Henry Hartley/Wikimedia Commons)

After new federal plans were set in motion last year, old growth logging in Alaska’s national forests is on its way out. Still, the feds have to make some timber sales available in the Tongass. And so, the U.S. Forest Service is in the early stages of planning one of its first young growth sales since the switch, just outside of Ketchikan.

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Mike Sallee is a small mill operator in Ketchikan, who deals mostly in dead and down trees, and he owns a homestead on nearby Gravina Island. His neighbors on Gravina are big landowners, like the state, the feds, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, and the university and mental health trusts —  all of which can sell trees on their land for profit.

In the past, Sallee said some of the landowners haven’t left Gravina in good shape. He’s noticed a tangle of trees still on the ground after they’re done logging.

“Places that I had been hiking through and hunting for decades [were] basically turned into like a blowdown,” Sallee said.

Which is why Sallee said he’s not enthusiastic about a road being built by the state on the island, slated to be completed this year.

The road could make it easier for more timber sales to pencil out, including one being planned by the U.S. Forest Service. The agency has a new obligation: bringing more young growth trees from the Tongass to market.

Between the many landowners and the new road, there’s a kind of menu: an a la carte of trees.

“Access, access, access. Everybody wants to have access to their lands,” Buck Lindekugel said. He’s a grassroots attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC).

Lindekugel’s organization petitioned the feds to transition away from old growth logging in the Tongass, so you’d think he’d consider harvesting the young trees to be a victory. But it’s not that simple.

“There’s some steep slopes in there so there’s real concern,” Lindekugel said. “It might not be the best thing to go back onto this land.”

Lindekugel said at the bottom of the slopes are salmon streams, and he worries the proposed logging could damage the area. He thinks the federal agency should learn from its past mistakes and stop clear cutting.

“We think the forest service needs to have a lighter touch on these areas,” Lindekugel said. “Pull out some marketable products but at the same time don’t unravel the habitat.”

Eric Nichols, a partner at Alcan Forest Products, said these trees have all been clear cut before.

“It needs to be clear cut again,” Nichols said. “And start it all over.”

Nichols is eyeing the young growth sale for his company, which specializes in buying timber. He admits times have been tough for the industry — a death spiral, as he puts it. It’s estimated there are only a few hundred timber jobs left in the region.

Part of the problem Nichols says is there hasn’t been a steady supply of trees. So while this young growth sale is relatively small, at least it’s something. And if the forest service wants a buyer, Nichols thinks there shouldn’t be any more limitations.

“So its either get it now with these other landowners or they’re not going to be able to get it in the future,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the road being built and collaboration is key. Once harvested, a company like Nichols’ would likely send the young growth to be milled in Asia.

Buck Lindekugel from SEACC said he doesn’t see the timber industry or the argument over the national forest going away — even with the transition.

“But it’s not going to be like it is was in the past where timber was first in the Tongass,” Lindekugel said. “Those days are over.”

Instead, Lindekugel imagines small mill operators like Mike Sallee selling specialty products from salvaged logs and more trees left in the ground on places like Gravina Island.

The forest service is taking public comment on its young growth plans on Gravina Island. The agency is trying to figure out how to harvest the trees and if the sale is viable. The comment period ends June 9.