Murkowski: Forest Service Failing Alaska Communities

Senator Lisa Murkowski today pressed U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the agency’s failure to address the needs of Southeast Alaska communities affected by federal forested lands in its 2016 budget request.

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Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, criticized the Forest Service’s commitment to rural communities who depend on revenues from timber activities on federal forested lands.

“The Forest Service should manage our forests for multiple-use and sustained-yield and it doesn’t. While I appreciate the idea of the Forest Service mantra – ‘caring for the land, serving the people’ – it doesn’t feel like the service is living up to it in Southeast Alaska or across our country,” Murkowski said. 

Significant reforms of federal management practices are needed to help rural communities survive, especially now that the roughly $300 million Secure Rural School program – which for years masked the problem of declining timber receipts by paying communities, including $14 million to communities in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, directly from the federal treasury – was not reauthorized for fiscal year 2014. The current budget request calls for slightly more than $50 million to be shared with rural communities nationwide through the Payment to States program. Alaska’s share of that smaller program for the current fiscal year is $537,000.

“It is not a false choice to pursue both healthy local economies and healthy forests. We can have both through the active management of our national forests,” Murkowski said. “Doing so would reduce hazardous fuels loads and cut the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies we currently pay our logging communities in lieu of letting them harvest timber.”

Murkowski also pressed Chief Tidwell on the Forest Service’s plan for the Big Thorne timber sale in the Tongass National Forest, which has been held up by litigation filed by environmental groups. The Forest Service has repeatedly pledged to complete the Big Thorne sale to ensure that Southeast mills have enough wood to survive the agency’s move to only allow harvesting of second-growth trees in the future.

“Now when we are dealing with litigation based on our timber sales, we don’t have a lot of reasons to be optimistic and it’s greatly concerning to me,” Murkowski told Tidwell. “Even if the Big Thorne sale makes it out of litigation, there’s nothing more in terms of additional volume of timber harvests. The commitments we are receiving from the Forest Service are not translating into increased harvests.”

Murkowski said the Forest Service’s commitment to allowing Alaska to fully utilize its resources in order to provide needed economic activity to rural areas.

“The Forest Service’s actions to restrict activity in federal forests are suffocating local communities. First, the service restricts timber harvests. Then the service restricts hydropower energy and mining projects by not allowing sufficient flexibility in the way the roadless rule is applied in Alaska,” Murkowski said. “Put simply, the Alaskans are hurting because of the Forest Service’s restrictive policies and they need relief.”

Murkowski introduced legislation earlier this month (S. 631) to restore the roadless exemption in Alaska that was granted in 2003. That decision recognized that the “one-size-fits-all” rule adopted during the Clinton administration does not work in a ruggedly remote state like Alaska where little infrastructure exists.

The Forest Service manages more than 22 million acres of national forest lands in Alaska, including nearly all of the land in Southeast. That is more acres than the entire 52 national forests located in the eastern and southern United States combined.

Click here to view Chairman Murkowski’s opening statement and here for more information on today’s hearing.