Alaska’s Tongass National Forest: Finding Common Ground between timber and environmental groups

For decades, the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska has been the center of longstanding conflict between environmental groups and timber interests.

But the usually contentious debate has begun to shift to a more productive dialogue between those fighting to protect the last old-growth ecosystems and timber interests targeting the same places for the largest trees.

A few years ago, a collaboration to address public policy issues of the Tongass forest and Southeast Alaska brought together traditional opponents to discuss issues ranging from environmental protection, to timber harvest levels, to unresolved land claims of Alaska Native people.

Although members of the Tongass Futures Roundtable, as it’s known, have retained their separate interests, many have realized that they share some common values. Specifically, the group has recognized a mutual interest in both restoring degraded areas of the forest and in creating jobs for local people.

Inspired by this, The Wilderness Society, which is a part of the Roundtable organized a workshop to explore an innovative tool that can aid in the restoration of previously logged forests and watersheds while creating economic development opportunities.

Stream restoration underway on Tongass National Forest. Photo by Rob Bosworth.The concept is called ‘stewardship contracting’ and it’s typically used by the U.S. Forest Service to allow private businesses to remove and use wood products from federally-owned lands in return for their performing work to restore and maintain forest ecosystems.

For example, in Hayfork, California, clear-cut logging practices of the past have resulted in dense stands of young trees that are vulnerable to catastrophic fires. Through a stewardship contract, the local community is now working with the forest service to thin the forest and reduce wildfire risk. Trees removed have been sold to a local wood manufacturing company that utilizes small-diameter wood and other materials from stewardship contracts and restoration projects to make wooden posts, poles, and stakes.

Stewardship contracts are often granted to local businesses and designed around the needs of the local community. They are used as a positive way for the Forest Service (and other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management) to develop closer working relationships with local communities while improving land conditions, and providing a sustainable source of income and employment to local people.

The Tongass Futures Roundtable has been discussing the concept of restoration for some time and has recognized that it could be used as a mechanism for creating new jobs and addressing rural energy needs, but the group was uncertain about how to move from idea to implementation. So Karen Hardigg, The Wilderness Society’s Alaska Forest Program Manager, tracked down Resource Innovations a University of Oregon-based non-profit organization with experience helping communities explore stewardship contracting and address complex forest management problems.

Old growth in the Tongass National Forest. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.As a result, The Wilderness Society, with support from the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wilburforce Foundation, contracted Resource Innovations to lead a two-day workshop this May to examine lessons learned from past federal stewardship contracting. This workshop also examined possible small-scale biomass utilization as a stewardship contracting project.

The May 18-19 workshop was the first of what The Wilderness Society hopes will be a series of workshops that will lead to greater use of stewardship contracting on the Tongass. 

In our quest to find long-term solutions that protect wilderness and wildlife habitat, while addressing the needs of local communities by preserving jobs, and cultural and social values, stewardship contracting offers some exciting opportunities.

Read more about stewardship contracting and how other communities have used this tool.

Learn more about The Wilderness Society’s work on the Tongass by clicking on the Related Content links below.

Stream restoration underway on Tongass National Forest. Photo by Rob Bosworth.
Old growth in the Tongass National Forest. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.