Trump Doubles Down on His Assault on Alaska’s Old-Growth Forests

US Forest Service’s multiple plans to log vast swathes of Tongass National Forest faces stiff opposition

DURING THE LAST HALF of the twentieth century, loggers cut down a hefty slice of old-growth forest blanketing Prince of Wales island, the fourth largest island in the United States located at the southern end of Alaska’s massive Tongass National Forest. And now the Trump administration is coming back for the rest.

Ariel view of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska
This past August, Trump announced his intention to rescind the roadless rule for Tongass, which would reopen the national forest’s 9 million protected acres, including 225,000 acres of old growth on Prince of Wales island, to logging. Photo by Jessica Applegate.

The US Forest Service plans to roll back protections on the most pristine parts of the national forest and chop down another quarter million acres of the island’s old growth forest — generally, trees more than 150 years old. Old-growth timber is often favored over younger timber because of its more attractive appearance, but cutting it down threatens the island’s wildlife and the subsistence lifestyles that depend on it.

Prince of Wales island is a little larger than Delaware but has less than 1 percent of that state’s population. Although old growth forests throughout Tongass — the nation’s largest national forest that covers most of the southeastern panhandle of Alaska — have been battered over the years by clearcutting, no place has been hit as hard as this island, most of which lies within the national forest.

Old-growth logging on Prince of Wales began in the 1950s with the opening of pulp mills in the cities of Sitka and Ketchikan on the nearby islands Revillagigedo and Baranof. The northern half of the island has had the highest rate of logging anywhere in Southeast Alaska, according to a 2016 state report. Logging slowed down dramatically in the 1990s when the mills closed, despite that, by 2000, loggers had nearly eliminated the area’s most commercially valuable forests, coinciding with a 75 percent decline in the island’s wolf population.

The forests got a reprieve in 2001, when President Clinton approved a “roadless rule” that banned the Forest Service from building new roads (that enable logging) into undeveloped forests. The rule essentially placed 9 million of the 16.7-million-acre Tongass off limits to logging.

But in August this year, Trump announced his intention to rescind the roadless rule for Tongass, which would reopen the park’s 9 million protected acres, including 225,000 acres of old growth on Prince of Wales island, to logging.

This proposal, which is not yet final, has been under intense debate within Alaska for more than a year. The US Forest Service aired the plan at several public hearings and stakeholder group meetings over the year where it met stiff opposition from a majority of the people who commented.

Meanwhile, as the meetings unfolded, the Forest Service developed a separate plan in March 2019 to log even more stands of old growth trees on the island. This plan, known officially as the “Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis,” is the largest timber sale on any national forest in 30 years. It will chop down 23,000 acres of old growth located outside the roadless areas of Tongass over the next 15 years.

On September 23, a day before the Forest Service was scheduled to open bidding in the first phase of the timber sale, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction barring the Forest Service from moving forward with the plan until March 31.  The ruling was in response to a lawsuit against the planned sale by eight environmental groups: the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Defenders Of Wildlife, Alaska Wilderness League, National Audubon Society, and Natural Resources Defense Council. While making the preliminary ruling, the judge indicated that the environmental groups would likely win their argument that the Forest Service violated several federal regulations in approving the sale.

THE LARGER STORY here is that the Trump administration plans to accelerate logging on federal lands across the country, not just on the Tongass. Last December, President Trump signed an executive order calling for the harvest of 3.8 billion board feet from US forestlands in 2019, up from 3.1 billion in 2018. And last month, the US Forest Service proposed annual harvests of 4 billion board feet.

Trump “appears to be ordering the Forest Service to put an end to multiple-use management in favor of getting the cut out,” Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for the American Bird Conservancy.

The Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis logging project, approved in March 2019 by the Tongass forest supervisor Earl Stewart, is stingy with the details. It fails to disclose exactly where the logging will take place. Nor does it provide any information identifying which species of wildlife would be disturbed at those logging sites or how the logging might impact people who rely on them for sustenance.

Maps of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska
The forest service has planned yet another logging project on Prince of Wales island that envisions logging 23,000 acres of old growth located outside the roadless areas of Tongass.

In his written decision, Stewart said “it is not possible” to determine how subsistence users and wildlife might be impacted by the logging. But ignorance is no excuse. Tom Waldo, a Juneau attorney with Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the lawsuit against the proposal, said federal law requires the agency to disclose and evaluate all the potential impacts. He says the plan violates at least five federal laws — the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Tongass Timber Reform Act, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. And he accuses the Forest Service of justifying the old-growth timber sale “under the guise of improving forest ecosystem health.”

Nor has the Forest Service disclosed the timber sale’s potential harm to the climate, which environmentalists say should must do. Climate scientists with the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) see old growth trees as important mitigation for the planet’s runaway carbon emissions. Alaska’s old growth trees absorb carbon dioxide and store it for hundreds of years. Half of a tree’s weight is carbon.

Ecologist Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oregon, says loggers typically reject about 70 percent of their old growth harvests due to imperfections in the wood. They leave these culled logs to rot on the forest floor. Some of the carbon stays in the soil, while the rest eventually returns to the atmosphere where it wreaks havoc on the climate.

THE TIMBER SALE also raises concerns about potential impacts on subsistence lifestyles of many of the residents of Prince of Wales Island.

The island’s 3,000 residents live in Craig and Klawock, two adjacent towns on its western flank. Craig is home base of the Craig Tribal Association, a federally recognized tribe that represents a majority of tribal residents on the island. Klawock is home to Viking Lumber Co., Southeast Alaska’s largest sawmill, and a log export terminal operated by a subsidiary of Sealaska, one of 13 Native corporations created by Congress in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Clinton Cook, president of the Craig Tribal Association, said the 400 members of the Craig tribe who live on the island risk losing access to wolves, salmon and deer — main staples of their subsistence diets. 

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Stewart, the forest supervisor, claims the timber sale does not restrict subsistence uses on the island in any significant way. But Cook strongly disagrees. He says the Forest Service “has been logging this island at an unsustainable rate for 50 years,” and has never listened to the tribe’s concerns, nor did it seek input from the tribe as it prepared this new timber sale.

“They need to start doing a better job of government-to-government consultation,” he says. “We've been here for 10,000 years. This is our land. We are stewards of the land.”

John Schoen, an author and retired ecologist with Audubon Alaska, says the negative consequences of logging old growth on the Tongass do not become fully apparent until at least 20 years after a harvest. Second growth stands, he says, provide little or no useful habitat for as long as 100 years. “These second-growth forests are veritable biological deserts for wildlife,” he says. 

“People on the island are beginning to see these changes, such as limited success hunting deer,” says David Albert, a landscape ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. “People on the island are increasingly concerned.” The Forest Service’s timber sale plan has exacerbated these concerns.

Cook says the logging could decimate the island’s population of Sitka black-tailed deer that form a significant part of most of the islanders’ subsistence diets. Old growth forests “not only provide our Alaska Native people with food, they essentially define who we are and where we come from,” he says.

“A lot of what was logged in the 50s is still not suitable habitat for deer, which is one of the things that we really have to have,” Cook says. “We don't go to the store and buy meat. You need old-growth for deer winter habitat. One of the main reasons they can live through the winter is the old-growth timber holds snow off the ground.”

Cook says the island has lost so much habitat that bird and wildlife populations and deer hunting opportunities have been jeopardized. The northern part of the island, where the Craig Tribal Association is based, has the most degraded deer habitat than anywhere on the Tongass, according to Waldo.

Deer feed on the lush vegetation growing within an old growth forest. Sunlight pouring between the old trees nourishes the understory vegetation. But once an old forest is logged, a young forest emerges in its place that is nothing like the old forest. In the dark cramped spaces underneath a young forest’s dense canopy, not much sunlight passes through and little vegetation can grow, an effect known as “stem exclusion.” 

Not only is there very little for a deer to eat in the young forest, the trees are so tightly packed together that only the tiniest animals can pass through. If deer disappear from this landscape, other species that depend on them could also lose out, including the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare species found on Prince of Wales and a few other nearby islands. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which found the wolf suffered a 75 percent population decline in the 1980s and 1990s, predicts “further declines” will occur over the next 30 years.

photo of bears in Tongass National Forest
Clearcutting rare old growth forest could endanger many species, including several found only on Prince of Wales Island, such as a unique subspecies of flying squirrels. The island is also home to a dwindling population of Alexander Archipelago wolves, which rely on the Tongass for their survival. Photo by Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA .

But in 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service decided the population of wolves does not warrant special protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It said wolf populations elsewhere in Alaska and British Columbia are healthy enough that logging on POW isn’t likely to affect the overall population “in a significant way.” 

Waldo says this decision violates the ESA, which requires the federal government to protect imperiled species “throughout their range.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has also rejected petitions to list two other troubled species impacted by old growth logging on the island, the Queen Charlotte goshawk and the Prince of Wales flying squirrel. Both subspecies live primary in old growth forests.

IN 2013, THE then US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, directed the Forest Service to quickly move away from old-growth and focus instead on harvesting second-growth forests, but the transition has not happened and appears to have stalled in the face of Trump’s decision to lift the roadless rule. 

Some Alaska-based economists say timber from the Tongass is uncompetitive because of high labor costs, vast distances from markets, and cheaper alternative sources of wood. Nearly 90 percent of all logs cut in southeast Alaska, including from the Tongass and from lands owned by Alaska Native corporations and the State of Alaska, are exported to Asia, according to the Forest Service.

Logging in the Tongass pencils out only because the foreign buyers are required to pay a premium to the Forest Service of $65 per million board feet for spruce and $25 for hemlock, or the agency subsidizes their sale as it has done for decades, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Forest Service policy forbids the export of more than half the logs cut from the Tongass, but the policy is not always enforced. For example, the Forest Service allowed all the logs harvested in a 2018 timber sale on the nearby island of Kuiu to be exported after no domestic buyer for the logs could be found.

A Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis of timber sales receipts and spending data, which include road­ building costs, shows that the Forest Service lost an average of $20 million per year on timber sales on the Tongass over the last decade. American taxpayers covered those losses. The group estimates that the Prince of Wales timber sale could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

On Aug. 21, as we drove the 6 miles from Craig to Klawock, a pile of what appeared to be old growth logs lined the highway next to the Viking Lumber sawmill. That same day, a Viking executive testified in court in the case against the Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis that the mill can’t find enough old growth logs to keep operating. Kirk Dahlstrom, the mill’s general manager, said it didn’t have enough logs in inventory to operate for even a year, “let alone ensure our continued viability.”

“We need spruce and cedar logs to run our operation,” he said, “but have none.”

As he spoke, a few hundred yards behind the mill at the Sealaska log export terminal, another pile of logs was being loaded onto a 20,000 ton cargo vessel named Global Striker, which 24 hours later began a three-week voyage to Lanshan, China. It arrived in China on Sept. 12, according to marinetraffic.com, a website that tracks the global movements of cargo vessels in real time.

Once all of Prince of Wales’ commercially valuable old growth is cut down, the Forest Service will have no choice but to offer younger trees for sale, at least if it wants to maintain a domestic wood products industry, but Dahlstrom said his company has little interest in those trees. He said Viking needs old growth Sitka spruce to make “piano stock for grand and baby grand pianos built in Japan and New York City. We are the only Sitka spruce piano stock supplier in the US, in fact.”

“The diversity of species found in old-growth timber sales (and missing in young-growth timber sales) is essential for Viking to supply its diverse customers with the products they require to run their businesses,” he added. 

Eventually Waldo predicts Viking Lumber will “shut down altogether” after it processes all the old-growth it can get its hands on.

AS WE FLEW OVER Prince of Wales island, we witnessed treeless bare ground in numerous fresh clearcuts. We also saw stands of younger trees that were beginning to spread their canopies across older clearcuts. In the very oldest clearcuts, which are now approaching 70 years of age, we saw a smorgasbord of timber that some experts say is ready for harvest.

One of those experts is Catherine Mater, a consultant with the Forest Service’ research station in Juneau. Since 2016, Mater has been gathering information about the economic feasibility of logging, milling, and marketing timber grown in the Tongass’ younger forests. She said her research confirms the young timber already has a substantial amount of economic value. 

The idea of the research project, she says, was to determine whether the timber industry would survive once the Tongass stopped logging old growth. It found that stands younger than 70 years old can produce equal or greater volumes of timber as old growth stands. These stands are all located outside ecologically sensitive areas and within 800 feet of a logging road, a factor that can significantly reduce costs.

Mater has met with several timber companies who expressed interest in purchasing the island’s young growth timber, including Sealaska, Icy Straits Lumber of Hoonah, AK, Vaagen Brothers Lumber of Colville, Wash., Alaska, and Idaho Custom Wood Products of Boise, Idaho.

“We were scheduled to begin the project harvesting in the spring of 2018, but the Forest Service abruptly informed us at that time that no funding could be secured,” Mater says. 

Word that the project would receive no funding came “about the same time the White House announced the effort” to rescind the Roadless Rule, she says. “Since then all focus within the Forest Service to transition out of old growth has come to a hard pause.”

Mater predicts that if she had been allowed to complete her project, it would have “reinvented” Alaska’s forest products industry based on sustainable forest management practices. “The opportunity is clearly there,” she says.

 “The Tongass is the last forest in North America, if not the world, where these large-tree old-growth landscapes still occur,” says Albert, the landscape ecologist. “These landscapes represent unique ecosystems of high value to many species of plants and animals. Continued high-grade clearcutting will essentially result in virtual extinction of those important ecological landscapes,” he says.  “Once gone, they are gone forever.”

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