Proposed Settlement Fails to Protect Struggling Timber Industry in Tongass National Forest

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on the potential consequences for the economy of Southeast Alaska of a proposed court settlement that would impose roadless protections on the Tongass National Forest.

“The court decision on the roadless rule holds the economy of Southeast Alaska hostage and it must be dealt with and I remain unconvinced that the settlement agreement proposed by the Forest Service resolves anything because other groups are still free to legally challenge individual project decisions,” Murkowski said.  

In March, a federal judge reinstated a 2001 roadless rule prohibiting logging and road construction in the Tongass after environmental groups filed a lawsuit. That decision reversed an exemption provided to the Tongass by a previous administration. To resolve the lawsuit, the Forest Service has proposed reinstating the roadless rule while allowing a small number of renewable energy projects to proceed. It offers no protection for 27 hydro project proposals currently being reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or 150 other potential hydro sites within the Tongass.

Murkowski said the terms of the settlement would further strangle Southeast communities by limiting their ability to lower their energy costs through the development of hydropower or to boost economic activity by developing mineral and timber resources in the Tongass.  

“This settlement catches the communities in Southeast in a terrible trap,” Murkowski said. “While nothing in it specifically prohibits these types of projects, to suggest that transmission lines or a new hydro project could be economical without road access – meaning it would all have to be done by helicopter – is ridiculous.”

Murkowski said the settlement is also potentially the final nail in the coffin of Southeast’s timber industry. 

“I’m very concerned that if the roadless rule is now applied to the forest, there is simply not enough economically viable second-growth timber in roaded areas for the industry to survive,” Murkowski said. “What’s more, the forest plan that took over 10 years and millions of dollars to complete may have to be re-written, creating even more uncertainty for the future of the industry.”

The Forest Service’s current management plan for the Tongass allows for timber sales of up to 267 million board feet. But the average sale over the last five years has been just 36 million board feet. The proposed settlement would likely further reduce the amount of timber offered from the forest.

“What this court decision means for the timber industry is very troubling. I don’t need to tell you that industry is hanging on by a thread,” Murkowski said. 

Dwindling timber sales have already reduced the number of sawmill and logging jobs in Southeast Alaska from 3,500 in 1990, to 214 in 2009. There is now only one large sawmill operating on the nation’s largest National Forest – an area that covers 17 million acres, or roughly the size of West Virginia.  

“I need a definitive solution that will guarantee the continued existence of the small communities within the Tongass,” Murkowski said. “If the courts and the Forest Service cannot provide that assurance, perhaps a legislative solution is needed.”

Murkowski’s comments came Thursday at a hearing on the Forest Service’s 2012 budget proposal before the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.