Old-growth logging mortgages future of the Tongass National Forest

Jun 14, 2012

Generations of loggers have seen timber from the Tongass National Forest as a source of income, but a new study indicates that the tradeoffs that come with large-scale harvests of old-growth timber in Southeast Alaska are not worth the short-term gain. 

A new study conducted by Stillwater Sciences for The Wilderness Society examines the effects of timber harvests on coho salmon populations in a heavily logged watershed on Prince of Wales Island, and the results are alarming: Logging and related road construction near Staney Creek likely have caused a 60-percent reduction in annual returns of coho salmon to the Staney Creek watershed. Given that about 70 Tongass watersheds have had at least half their flood-plain forests logged, logging is likely jeopardizing salmon populations throughout Southeast Alaska. Fortunately, there is a solution for maintaining healthy salmon populations in the Tongass -- conserving remaining old-growth forests and restoring damaged watersheds.

“Old-growth logging on the Tongass has come with significant cumulative impacts to critical ecosystem services such as fish and wildlife habitat, carbon storage and beautiful vistas,” said Evan Hjerpe, a Wilderness Society economist examining Tongass forest management. “This study highlights the need to shift management funds away from old-growth logging toward the protection of intact watersheds and the restoration of degraded watersheds.”

Such a large loss of potential salmon production is cause for concern in a region heavily dependent on subsistence fishing and where salmon and trout fishing provide 10 percent of annual local jobs. In contrast, timber-industry jobs represent less than one percent of employment. Because it takes centuries for old-growth conditions to develop, logging is mortgaging the future of the Tongass by harming resources that are the real economic drivers of the region.

Trees in unaltered forest stands play a critical role in creating suitable habitat for fish. For example, trees that naturally fall into streams create pools, slow stream flows and provide shade for young fish.  Large, stable trees on nearby slopes reduce erosion from roads and culverts. Shifting Tongass timber dollars to watershed restoration to help restore these and other natural conditions would be an economic and ecological investment in Southeast Alaska.  Investments in watershed restoration have been shown to create more regional jobs per dollar than logging funds and positively impact more sectors of the regional economy.

“For every dollar the U.S. Forest Service spends on repairing Tongass streams degraded by logging, it spends 20 dollars planning new clearcuts and logging roads,” Hjerpe said.  “This is an unsustainable ratio that comes at the expense of other industries, communities, and the next generation, all of which depend on a healthy Tongass National Forest.”