Hope surfaces for restoring Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Old growth in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.

Returning to my desk in Anchorage after working in the field is not always easy, especially after the kind of success and inspiration I experienced in May.

I was on Prince of Wales Island, the largest island in Southeast Alaska and the heart of the Tongass National Forest. Here, as in so many other places in the region, rural communities are struggling with declining populations and timber harvests, forests and streams degraded by past logging, and longstanding conflict over how best to manage the forest and its resources.

Recently, however, ecological restoration has been gaining broad support as a means to lessen this traditional conflict and provide environmental, social, and economic benefits that can serve the diverse interests and needs of local communities. Recognizing the opportunity to capitalize on and further this interest, The Wilderness Society, together with the Forest Service and our conservation partners, hosted a two-day workshop in the small town of Thorne Bay.

The purpose of the workshop was to learn about an innovative tool for restoring forests impacted by past logging. That approach to forest stewardship is called stewardship contracting. Stewardship contracting provides greater flexibility to the Forest Service to meet its land management objectives and encourages local collaboration

In Thorne Bay, more than 40 people showed up to learn more about stewardship contracting and how it might be used on Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere in the Tongass.

Together in one room were Forest Service staff, timber industry representatives, Native Alaska interests, conservation groups, and community members. Leading the group was Resource Innovations, a group from Oregon with experience in stewardship contracting.

We learned about how other communities are using stewardship contracting to restore their forests while simultaneously creating jobs. We also learned about some problems that can be encountered. For example, communities must be able to collectively define a shared vision for forest management, and wood product removed from restoration treatments must have sufficient value to make the stewardship contract worthwhile.

Despite the potential challenges, workshop participants came away genuinely enthusiastic and interested in stewardship, restoration, and the opportunity to support local economic development.

Immediately following the workshop a meeting of the Tongass Futures Roundtable — a collaborative group of stakeholders that meets four times a year to discuss public policy issues on the Tongass — confirmed broad stakeholder interest in pursuing a different model of forest management.

For the first time, I sensed real hope, excitement, and commitment to collective action between traditional opponents Collaborative restoration and stewardship contracts represent a tangible near-term opportunity to begin making a transition away from old-growth logging, to forest management that protects and restores landscape connectivity and meets some of the social and economic needs of adjacent rural communities.

Thinking back to my first job on the Tongass nearly ten years ago when I was a Forest Service biologist studying flying squirrels and just happy to be working in the woods, I could not have imagined the kind of field work I am doing now. The Wilderness Society is working directly with local communities to find ways to implement truly sustainable forest management practices.

As I and my colleagues continue to work to protect the important wilderness and wildlife resources of the Tongass National Forest, as well as the communities and cultures that depend on this special place, it will be important to continue spending time in the field, better understanding local conditions, building relationships, and identifying realistic opportunities to create long-term, durable solutions. And then make it all happen from my desk.

photo: Old growth in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.