The Emperor Has No Timber?

Despite liberal allowances for clearcutting, Southeast Alaska's timber industry may be on its way out.

The amended Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP) protects some of the highest priority watersheds in the Tongass National Forest while still scheduling a large volume of old-growth over the next 15 years. But even with TLMP’s liberal old-growth allowance and a hefty subsidy, the timber industry in Southeast Alaska may be circling the drain.

The Kuiu timber sale received no bids last fall. Meanwhile, the massive Big Thorne timber sale has proved less lucrative and more costly than the industry predicted, with US Forest Service internal documents showing the agency in the highly questionable position of considering whether to reimburse the logging company off-book for its losses. There is even proposed legislation to allow Alaska Native Corporations to create biofuel projects in the Tongass National Forest, an issue we are tracking for its potential to harm old-growth forests, but which also signals that perhaps private logging acres have largely exhausted their merchantable timber.

However, even as evidence grows that the industry may be on its last legs, the administration continues to propose ambitiously scaled timber offerings in its planning documents. The amended TLMP itself schedules at least 430 million board feet (mmbf) of old-growth over 15 years and makes up to 690 mmbf allowable. A landscape project on Prince of Wales Island proposes 200 mmbf over ten years, and only then would the agency take stock of remaining resources in that heavily impacted ecosystem.

Old-growth clearcutting contributes very little economically while taking an immense toll on forest resources. The Tongass provides a wealth of non-extractive forest “products” including fishing, recreation, birding, endemic species, and climate change resiliency. It may be more difficult to calculate these nontraditional values in traditional economic statistics, but they deserve a spot on the balance sheets, where they would far outperform the dwindling timber industry. It makes sense to start thinking creatively about how these natural forest products offer very real opportunities for community jobs and prosperity.

How you can help, right now