Forest service presents logging alternatives


Representatives from the US Forest Service presented publicly for the first time potential large-scale logging alternatives for Wrangell Island.

The five alternatives presented at the borough’s economic development committee meeting Thursday evening deal with the minority of old-growth timber on Wrangell Island not included with existing federally mandated old-growth reserves, or impacted by the so-called “inventoried roadless rule” land of 2001, which critically altered the economic feasibility of the Southeast logging industry. Existing managed stands of old-growth also aren’t included in the possible alternatives. The alternatives will be included in an environmental impact statement about the sale. Officials expect that statement to be available by the end of the summer.

Money received from the sale of the timber must be used for stewardship purposes. Typically, that means money set aside for existing transportation, recreation and environmental purposes.

Work on the sale has been underway since at least 2008, according to Forest Service supervisor Tim Piazza, who has worked on the sale along with Wrangell Ranger Unit Bob Dalrymple. Both officials delivered the presentation to the committee.

“I’ve had two kids that have been born since we started this project,” Piazza joked. “I’m very glad to be sharing some information because this is a milestone in my mind.”

“We got a long ways to go, but we can start sharing some things,” he added.

The first plan, labelled Alternative 1, would essentially do nothing. No new timber would be opened for sale. The existing 73 miles of unpaved forest service road would be left untouched. Roads currently open to allow access to micro-sale sites would close on completion of those sales. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which dictates the process for use of public land, mandates that the first alternative considered show what would happen if no action were taken, according to Piazza.

“It’s a reminder,” he said. “It’s an alternative to the proposed action that if things are that controversial as we move forward and we get more comments, the decision could be that we’re just not going to do anything.”

Alternative 2 would add 4,300 acres of land to the existing managed stands. Under this alternative, half would be removed under “uneven-aged management” strategies – where loggers essentially remove the tallest and most expensive trees while leaving the remaining lumber untouched – while the other half would be removed under “even-aged management,” or clear-cutting. Alternative 2 would add no additional roads. This alternative could provide up to 78 million board feet of lumber – over the course of a 10-year contract – from Wrangell trees. Uneven-aged management techniques leave about 80 percent of the existing trees in place, a figure dictated by “visuals,” or the forest’s appearance, officials said.

Alternative 3 was designed to favor the logging companies by adding 9,500 acres of existing timber, with 53 percent being removed via clear-cutting and 47 percent via uneven-aged management techniques, like helicopter logging. The plan would provide 175 million board feet of lumber from Wrangell trees. Nine miles of road currently held open to facilitate existing timber sales – known as micro-sales – would become permanent, with 13 additional miles proposed, bringing the total number of Forest Service roads to 95 miles, primarily in areas near Long Lake as well as properties north of the Pats Lake road, and the stretch of land between Thoms Lake and Thoms Place. Construction of the roads would be funded in part by timber receipts, according to Dalrymple.

“That’s what Alternative 3 represents,” Piazza said. “It’s not the maximum harvest, but what we tried to do is create more opportunities for harvest. And, in doing so, we’ve had to make some changes to some of the land-use designations and some of the protections that are currently within the forest plan.”

“We’re doing things pretty drastic, saying if you want to get the volume, this is how you’re going to achieve that, and there are some consequences to that,” he said.

The forest plan is a wide-ranging document officials use as a set of guidelines or intended uses for various regions within federal lands on Wrangell Island. Like the borough’s land-use plan, the forest plan is intended to serve as a set of guidelines and can be amended to suit other needs, according to Piazza.

Alternative 4 would add 7,800 acres of timber, with 70 percent set aside for uneven-aged removal and the remaining 30 percent set aside for clear-cutting. Wrangell trees could provide as much as 112 million board feet of additional lumber under this plan. As with Alternative 3, this plan would keep open 82 miles of existing road, while adding an additional five miles of forest service road, bringing the total length of Forest Service roads to 87 miles.

“The idea here is how do we find a happy medium between [Alternative 2 and Alternative 3],” Piazza said. Alternative 4 was the one with the most borough feedback, he added.

“The effects are going to be a little more than [Alternative 2],” he said. “Can we mitigate some of those effects by doing something where we’re getting more volume but we’re also not doing some things that are so extreme? Alternative 4 really tried to find this mutual-interest balance.”

The alternative tried to step up timber cutting in areas and reduce areas in other according to the preferences of borough officials, according to Piazza.

Alternative 5 maximizes the biological capacity of Wrangell Island forests, according to Piazza. The plan would add 5,000 acres of timber to produce 68 million board-feet of lumber. The plan would allow 23 percent of the timber to be harvested via clear-cutting with the remaining 77 percent being harvested through uneven-aged management techniques. Roads currently held open for micro-sales would be closed on the completion of those sales, leaving 73 total miles of Forest Service roads.

The environmental impact statement is submitted to the public on completion, and public feedback is solicited for 45 days, after which the Forest Service will issue its decision.

Cutting trees – or not – is inherently political, a sentiment echoed in part by Economic Development Committee Member Rudy Briskar, a long-time timber industry worker. Road construction is minimal under all of the plans, a function of environmental activist groups Briskar labelled “enviro-terrorists.”

“I had my living swiped out from underneath me,” he said. “I’ve seen the human damage that enviro-terrorist organizations cause. They do not consider the human damage, and it’s just wrong.”

“NEPA is a dirty word, with all the environmental stuff that goes in, your budget is probably – I would imagine – 80 percent addressing those concerns,” Briskar added. “You’re supposed to manage for multiple use, but yet the Forest Service has been managing for environmental concerns for years.”

Timber project sales like the proposed sale for Wrangell Island are designed in part to counter perceptions, Piazza said.

“I have to say, that is why I’m enthused about this project, because I want to break the mold and try and do it better,” he said. “We have concerns on both ends of the spectrum.”

“At this phase, what we’re showing is ‘What is the opportunity out there?’” he said. “By no means are we saying ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re not there yet.”

The Forest Service could add an additional alternative or take no action, depending on public feedback about the alternatives, Piazza said.

“It’s really driven by public feedback,” he said.

Other questions were driven by economic concerns. George Woodbury, another timber industry veteran with decades of experience, contrasted the same and delayed-growth management techniques. While clear-cutting might be a pejorative term, selective logging could prove to be economically unfeasible, because of the high cost of helicopter fuel, and it could actually alter the biological makeup of the forest. Those costs mean loggers focus only on certain valuable tree species (a process known as high-grading), creating an advantage for other, less-desirable species, Woodbury said.

“The only thing you can afford to take out … is spruce and yellow cedar,” he said. “That’s what they’re taking out now for the most part. The residuals of doing that are a bunch of hemlock.”

Other comments focused on the methodology used to determine areas suitable for logging. Southeast Conference Executive Director Shelly Wright said her organization is working on a management system, which the group intends to promote as an alternative to the Forest Service’s existing model.

“We have, for the past two years, been working on an alternative management strategy for the Tongass,” she said. “This management strategy manages the forest as a living, breathing … ever-changing organism. It doesn’t have circles, it doesn’t have areas that are isolated and set aside and no-touch. It puts rules down to where you have to have riparian zones.”

The plan places habitat as a priority, followed by social issues, then timber issues, Wright said.

“When you start talking about, are you cutting all the old-growth, well, by the time this timber they’re talking about gets cut down, the new timber’s going to be old-growth,” she said, drawing objections from audience members and committee members.

The alternative strategy echoes successful management strategies undertaken in Pacific Northwest states like Oregon and Washington state, Wright said.

“You do have to remember that we live quite a bit further north than Oregon,” said committee member Marlene Clarke. “Their timber growth that they sustain happens much faster than the timber growth up here.”

The proposed sale drew almost 300 pages of written comments from concerned parties ranging from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski to environmental groups like the Southeast Area Conservation Council – among the organizations Briskar labelled “enviroterrorists.”

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