Preservation of Tongass National Forest is crucial to our national climate change policy

Preservation of Tongass National Forest is crucial to our national climate change policy
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The recent omnibus spending bill included a major policy win for America’s forests in the shape of a dead policy rider originally slipped into the bill by Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R-Alaska).

The shifty policy rider sought to hasten a year-long effort to compromise among local stakeholders, whom recognized the need to transition out of unsustainable logging of 800 year-old trees in Alaska’s iconic Tongass National Forest.

At least for the time being, conservationists, the Alaskan tourist industry, wildlife lovers, fisheries and even hunters in Tongass can breathe a sigh of relief.

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Spanning 17 million acres, Tongass is the world’s biggest coastal temperate rainforest in the United States. Tongass houses the largest span of old growth forest in the U.S. and protects habitat for a diverse range of wildlife and sea species.

 

Salmon runs, fisheries, tourism and recreation support $2 billion in revenues and more than one million visitors each year. However, due to scorched-earth logging practices that utilized a technique of clear cutting full forest areas, Tongass has lost at least half of its old growth forest since the 1950s. Logging companies exploited cheap undervalued heavily-subsidized lumber to ravage Tongass’s old growth trees.

In 2013, the Tongass U.S. Forest Department sought to address these unsustainable logging practices. It put together an advisory committee comprised of representatives from environmental groups, logging companies, fishing and hunting organizations, Native tribes, and local, state and federal government agencies. It also solicited over 165,000 public comments and held multiple meetings and hearings.

After years of these negotiations and community conversations, the Forest Service finalized a new Tongass Forest Management Plan on Dec. 8, 2016.

The plan specifically contemplated a 16-year transition that would phase out old growth logging and transition into newer growth timber production.

As part of the compromise, the 2016 plan actually allowed for more old growth logging in the first 10 years that would be followed by more limited old growth harvesting. As evidence of its compromise nature, both environmental groups and logging industry representatives had objections to the 2016 plan.

From the beginning, Murkowski has done all that she could to undermine and reverse the 2016 plan in order to revive a dying industry. Her recent unsuccessful rider targeted the 2016 plan to dismantle its direction to transition out of clear cut logging of old growth trees.

Murkowski’s effort to unravel these protections undermines economic development, jeopardizes vital natural habitat and watersheds, and serves only the timber industry, not the American public. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that clear cutting of old growth trees for timber puts whole systems at risk and destroys wildlife habitats.

Aside from the environmental concerns, the damage from clear-cut logging threatens Tongass’s salmon, fishery, and tourism industries, which together provide 25 percent of the jobs in the area and bring in around $2 billion in revenues.

The timber industry, meanwhile, employed less than 250 people in 2012 (less than 1 percent of the jobs in the region) and actually cost American taxpayers around $100 million a year in federal timber-related expenditures. The potential harm to the larger fish and tourist industries far outweighs any economic benefits in rejuvenating a dying industry.

Murkowski’s action also subverts the democratic process, which gave the local community voice in decisions about local resources. The 2016 plan was the result of extensive negotiations among local stakeholders — a truly democratic debate.

Those involved have described the effort as an incredible achievement where good faith compromise based on diverse interests won out. Murkowski’s efforts to undo this deal renders all of this time and effort wasted in blatant disregard for the will of the people impacted.

Finally, the preservation of the old growth trees is crucial to our long-term national climate change policy. Tongass is one of the last temperate forests. One forest service soil scientist estimated that Tongass stores an estimated 10-12 percent of all carbon stored in our national forests. Short-sighted efforts to harvest large growth not only harms the economic interests of the local industries, but will harm our long-term fight against climate change.

The 2016 plan made crucial progress in protecting our natural heritage and implementing sustainable forest management. Fortunately, wise policy won out in this most recent budget negotiation with the timely death of Murkowski’s policy rider. But how long it will last remains to be seen.

Tracy Stein J.D.is a board member of Earth Day Initiative and works with her town’s sustainability advisory board. She is also a researcher for Lawyers for Good Government.