A plea to DC: Save the Tongass plan

Austin Williams, left, of Trout Unlimited, and Keegan McCarthy, of Juneau came to Washington, D.C. to advocate for keeping the amended Tongass plan. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Congress recently learned it has the power to overturn the amended Tongass Land Management Plan, a document that was years in the making.  A Juneau business owner flew to Washington, D.C. with a message for the Alaska Congressional delegation: “Don’t.”

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The plan for the Tongass National Forest was completed in the final weeks of the Obama administration, and Keegan McCarthy likes it. He’s a commercial fisherman and operates a small cruise company, catering to groups of 12 or fewer. McCarthy says the delegation seems to have an outsized focus on the timber industry and his mission is to remind them other Tongass-dependent businesses are providing jobs and economic stimulus.

“The timber industry did bring a lot to Southeast Alaska in its heyday. Some good. Some bad,” Keegan said. “But Southeast Alaska has evolved. We’ve evolved into a great tourist destination. Commercial fisheries are flourishing. We have amazing other opportunities in Southeast Alaska right now.”

Trout Unlimited sponsored McCarthy’s citizen-lobbying trip. The Tongass plan they are advocating to keep calls for a transition to young-growth timber.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is among those who doubt the plan provides enough timber in time to keep what remains of the industry going.

“We can’t make those trees grow any faster. That’s our problem,” Murkowski said at a hearing last year.

Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young have all said they’re considering overturning the new Tongass plan using the Congressional Review Act. The CRA gives Congress 60 days to overturn new rules. But that’s 60 legislative days, starting from when the administration sends a report on the rule to Congress, so the deadline likely won’t fall until well into next year.

Alaska Forest Association Director Owen Graham says the Tongass logging industry hopes the delegation succeeds in ditching the plan.

“Everybody felt pretty doomed in December last year when the Forest Service signed that plan,” Graham said. “They basically lied and said, ‘this plan will work fine.’ But everybody in the timber industry knew that was lie.”

Graham says the plan would have killed the timber business.

McCarthy, the Juneau cruise operator, says he’s not asking to end commercial logging. He says the plan gives an equal opportunity for other businesses to make in the Tongass, too.

Alaska’s Energy Desk reporter Elizabeth Jenkins contributed to this report.