Proposed Tongass change could speed young-growth transition
The Forest Service is proposing to open an additional 1,144 acres of the Tongass National Forest to harvesting of young-growth timber, opening a debate about where the transition away from old-growth timber should be focused.
In a proposed amendment to the forest management plan for the Tongass — the nation's biggest national forest at nearly 17 million acres — the agency said it would allow more harvesting of young growth on a landscape known as moderate-vulnerability karst, which is typically underlain by a soluble rock like limestone.
Moderate-vulnerability karst doesn't have caves or sinkholes — which are typically found in high-vulnerability karst landscapes — and the Forest Service said those areas can handle management activities such as timber harvesting. In addition, the agency said, regulations have been written in an inconsistent way that would allow cutting of trees in those locations if they were old growth.
"Analysis of old-growth harvest on moderate vulnerability karst has demonstrated that the standards in place were sufficient to maintain the natural processes and productivity of karst lands. This amendment will align the standards for young-growth and old-growth harvest on moderate vulnerability karst," the Forest Service said in a news release.
Tongass Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart outlined the proposal in a Feb. 1 "Need for Change Determination" posted with the public notice and news release.
Although 1,144 more young-growth acres would be available for harvest, cutting won't necessarily happen on all of it, the Forest Service said. Timber projects are subject to review on a case-by-case basis.
But the Forest Service said the proposal, open for public comment for 30 days, would speed the transition away from old growth and to younger trees, a top priority among conservation groups. The speed of that transition remains a point of debate within the federal government, including in Congress, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has urged a cautious approach that protects timber interests.
Some environmental groups say the transition can happen faster than the Forest Service predicts and without going into karst areas that may be environmentally sensitive. Many karst lands in the Tongass were cut decades ago, and the resulting young growth could eventually become old growth, said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., which is pushing for a quicker transition.
DellaSala told E&E News that the surveys he and colleagues have done in the Tongass indicate the Forest Service doesn't need to tap the karst areas to achieve a faster transition as soon as 2020. That faster transition can be reached with small-scale old-growth harvesting for specialty wood in the interim, he said. Karst sites are ecologically productive and fragile areas, he added.
"The Tongass needs to be managed for its most important resources — old forests, productive sites," DellaSala said. "These are anchoring the entire region, including the subsistence and recreation economies that produce far more jobs than the 100 or so logging jobs."