Economic Realities in the Tongass National Forest

Emerald Bay in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.

The Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska is our nation’s largest national forest. This 17 million acres of land provides a wealth of resources from scenic views to old growth to habitat for hundreds of species including wild salmon, brown bears and whales. For the 70,000 inhabitants in that region, the national forest provides food for the dinner table, sanctity for cultural teachings, and vast opportunities for recreation and enjoyment.

For the past several years, Wilderness Society economists have been studying the economic situation of the Tongass, focusing particularly on its timber industry. Our work has shown that market demand for Tongass timber is decreasing, its non-timber products and services are far more valuable, and a transition to a more sustainable forest management is needed to secure long-term economic and social growth of the region.

Decline in Timber Demand

Our Déjà vu on the Tongass report shines a light on the competitive disadvantages of the Tongass timber industry. Because of its remoteness from timber markets, the costs of logging, manufacturing, and transportation are exorbitantly high.

The Tongass is also dominated by tree species with lower value as timber, creating the over-harvesting of the highest value old growth trees. In decades past, Japan was the primary export destination of Tongass timber but the demand has declined dramatically — from 400 million board feet in 1973 to less than 25 million board feet in 2003. The current demand has shifted to the U.S. domestic market which is dominated by more efficient mills in the Southern U.S., Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. Due to the decline in the housing market, overall timber demand has decreased as well.

It’s More Than Just Timber

Brown bear with cub fishing, Anan Wildlife Observatory in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy USFS.The way the Tongass is currently managed implies that its main value lies in timber production, but we beg to differ. In our 2008 Greater than Zero report, we bring attention to the significant wildland values on the Tongass and Chugach National Forests by describing their worth in dollar terms. Our analysis shows that non-timber use such as recreation, subsistence food, salmon, scientific use, and carbon sequestration contributes more than $2 billion to the local economics annually. Compared to this, the limited revenue brought in by the timber industry is only a drop in the bucket.

Managing the Tongass for the Future

The solution to the Tongass dilemma is not just a matter of blocking logging activity. The timber industry has long been a part of southeast Alaska’s economy and culture and provides important local jobs. But, the high economic and ecological costs of the Tongass timber sale program have encouraged stakeholders to support a management transition from old growth to second growth harvests. With existing second growth stands being a couple of decades away from optimal harvest age however, an immediate transition to traditional second growth harvests is currently not feasible. What is feasible, is investing in the restoration and stewardship of the thousands of stem-excluded second growth acres and numerous degraded streams, which would provide ample woody byproducts for utilization and could be the catalyst for getting out of old growth logging.

In our upcoming report, Seeing the Tongass for the Trees: The Economics of Transitioning to Sustainable Forest Management, we examine the economic impacts associated with reallocating the $32 million annual budget for the old growth timber sale program toward management focused on restoration and stewardship. This transition would have the following benefits:

  • Retain a similar amount of ‘in-the-woods’ jobs as the current timber sale program;
  • Enhance the quantity and quality of salmon, deer, carbon storage and virtually all ecosystem services;
  • Annually restore over 1,000 acres and miles of degraded streams, decommission outdated roads, and repair numerous culverts;
  • Create the bridge to transition from old growth to second growth harvest;

The Wilderness Society envisions a future for the Tongass that includes staying out of roadless areas, transitioning out of old growth, and building a restoration-based economy for the benefit of rural communities and ecosystem health.

Emerald Bay in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.
Brown bear with cub fishing, Anan Wildlife Observatory in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy USFS.