National Forests are designated multi-use landscapes. Practices such as timber harvest can certainly be acceptable and beneficial forms of human use. After all, our lives depend upon wood resources and we have to gather those resources from somewhere, whether we like it or not. However, certain timber management tools are only sustainable in certain contexts when targeting certain tree species. Clearcutting is one such tool.
Per the US Forest Service, “Management of the Tongass National Forest follows the guidance of the Tongass Land Management Plan, first completed in 1979 and most recently modified in 2008.”
Over the years, the Tongass Land Management Plan has been amended. But even under amended versions, clearcutting of old-growth Sitka spruce has continually been permitted.
Clearcutting “pines in a line” on a Georgia tree farm is a great way to gather significant wood resources while ensuring more trees will be available for the next round of harvest. In the Rockies, clearcutting or thinning stands of dead or diseased trees within areas susceptible to fire can save millions of dollars in wildland firefighting costs, enhance habitat and protect communities located on the fringe of National Forests and other wildlands. Clearcutting acres of 500 year-old Sitka spruce is not sustainable or beneficial to the greater landscape or economy.
In the Tongass, USFS guidelines for clearcut openings within old-growth forests range from 2 to 100 acres, depending on the perceived scenic value of the targeted region, critical wildlife habitat designations and other guidelines.
Photo: America’s Salmon Forest
Clearcutting in the Tongass often takes place within Alaska’s Inner Passage, along critical salmon spawning waterways. Trees hold banks and control erosion with their root systems. Some run-off is certainly natural and occasional mass washings take place, depending on seasonal weather. But with the mass removal of trees due to concentrated human activity, soil runs into creeks en masse, clouding the water and negatively impacting habitat for salmon and other aquatic species. Logging demands new roads. These new routes are often constructed in a such a way as to block waterways.
When a valuable ecosystem and commercial species like salmon is impacted, a ripple goes through the entire system. Bears and raptors rely on fish for sustenance. Other species rely on these carnivores and so on.
Photo: Alaska Wildlife Alliance
Recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported a drastic decline in Archipelago wolves in areas of the Tongass heavily impacted by logging. 87% of these wolves are killed by hunting, trapping and poaching. With roads cut into the forest for logging, consumptive users gain easier access to wildlife which were previously inaccessible. Secondly, Tongass wolf populations are supported by deer herds. With the loss of prime deer habitat, deer populations, and then wolf populations, decline. The reduction of deer due to habitat loss is perceived by some humans as due to rampant wolf packs. So this perception drives more hunting, trapping and poaching. It is estimated that for every one wolf legally harvested, there is one that is poached. State wolf management guidelines do not account for poached animals in quotas.
Timber sales in the Tongass have cost U.S. tax payers about $1 billion since 1982 in subsidized timber sales. The Audubon Society refers to the Tongass as a “Taxpayer Boondoggle in America’s Rainforest.”
Furthermore, many of our American old-growth trees are shipped to China to be fashioned into cheap goods (many of which are then shipped back to the U.S.). As noted by the USFS, while the former Japanese market demanded quality old-growth trees, Chinese buyers are more interested in quantity. The Chinese purchased 14% of timber harvested in the Tongass in 2014, supplanting Japanese demand over the last decade.
While the Forest Service firmed up a new draft plan in 2016 with added protections for old-growth stands, these amendments are not yet in effect. This means those purchasing timber leases may be permitted to clearcut old-growth stands until 2030. In the meantime, the agency simultaneously predicts an increase in harvest over the next 15 years and continues to evaluate the potential value to be extracted from the old-growth timber base.
Tourism—generated by people desiring to see old-growth trees, wolves and other wildlife—and the salmon fishery each contribute $1 billion to the regional economy of Southeast Alaska. Clearcutting old-growth trees—an outdated practice that costs taxpayers—is destroying the very resources that significantly uphold the regional economy.
The effects of deforestation on global air quality and climate change are devastating and apparent. We’ve witnessed unchecked logging in Madagascar, the Amazon, Guatemala, and beyond. The result is the same in every instance: ecological and community collapse. Globally, nearly 18 million acres of forest are lost to clearcutting every year.
While the Tongass is managed in a way that rainforests in the developing world seldom are, there are forestry management practices taking place in our own backyard that might be heavily questioned. Clearcutting old-growth Sitka spruce in the 21st Century is on the wrong side of history.