ALASKA'S FOREST INDUSTRY
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forestry 

BACKGROUND

In the 1970s the forest sector was the second largest industry in Alaska. However, government policy and federal land use shifts in the 1990s radically transformed the industry. Yet forestry still holds much potential to diversify the economy. The forest industry utilizes a renewable resource in a sustainable way, providing jobs and biomass energy for the 49th state.

Most commercial logging has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily in the Tongass National Forest and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Sitka spruce and western hemlock of very high quality have been exported as logs, lumber and timbers into the Pacific Rim for the past five decades. During much of this time, the lower quality portion of the timber was used to produce dissolving pulp, which was sold around the world for producing rayon, pharmaceuticals and paper products.

Products produced by Alaska mills include large cants and flitches, shop lumber destined for remanufacture, dimensional lumber, railway ties, shakes and shingles, music wood, and a host of specialty and craft products.

In addition to the Tongass, timber harvests also occur on state “boreal” forest lands in Interior Alaska, which contains stands of white spruce, cottonwood, aspen and paper birch. In fact, the industry in Interior Alaska is experiencing slow, but steady growth as wood biomass projects are developed to meet community needs for economic space heating and electrical generation.

Since the 1990s, the industry in Southeast Alaska has been in decline. Political and economic pressures, increased federal land withdrawals, a more stringent regulatory climate and environmental lawsuits forced the closure of Southeast Alaska’s two pulp mills. The Tongass Land Use Management Plan (TLMP), issued in 1997 and amended in 2008 and 2016, sharply reduced allowable harvest levels.

Clearly, federal policies and management practices have failed to provide sufficient timber supply for what remains of Southeast Alaska’s timber industry. Each time the Forest Service has revised its management plan for the Tongass, it has increased its emphasis on non-timber amenities and reduced the amount of land available to grow and harvest timber.

Prior to 1976, the agency was managing 5 million acres for timber production on a sustainable basis. After 1980, the agency planned to utilize 3 million acres primarily for timber production. A 2008 amended plan reduced potential harvests over the next 100 years to a land base of only 663,000 acres. About half of that acreage is young-growth currently too young to harvest without robbing the trees of their best growth potential. The 2016 amendment to TLMP largely restricted the timber sale program to young-growth stands that are not in reserves and buffers to about 300,000 acres – one percent of the acreage that was managed for timber production prior to 1990.

Timber harvests fell to all-time record lows in the Tongass, including the cutting of only 19 million board feet (mmbf) in 2007 and 21 mmbf in 2012. In recent years, the harvest has averaged 35 mmbf. To put these harvests in perspective, the annual sustainable harvest level for the Tongass set under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 was 520 mmbf. The 2008 amendment to TLMP reduced the annual harvest cap to 267 mmbf. The 2016 amendment capped the annual harvest at 46 mmbf with a 15-year schedule to reduce the old-growth portion to 5 mmbf.

The timber industry was once a major pillar of Alaska’s economy, accounting for 4,000 jobs. Most of these jobs are now gone, and approximately 99 percent of the Tongass remains closed to timber harvesting and no commercial harvests are taking place in the Chugach, the nation’s second largest forest.

The downward spiral of the Southeast Alaska timber industry has adversely affected local communities, schools, and economies. However, creation of the Southeast State Forest in 2011 was a good start to securing a state-owned land base for forest management in that region.

The state Division of Forestry is working to address challenges with of providing an adequate supply of timber sales from state and federal lands to ensure the forest products industry can continue to contribute to the Southeast Alaska economy. This is a multi-faceted approach that includes working with the Forest Service, where the state is conducting forest management work under the Good Neighbor Authority on federal lands using state staff and processes. In 2018, two additional project agreements were initiated, one near Ketchikan on Gravina Island where a joint timber sale and forest restoration work is planned, while the second project is for thinning spruce to improve forest health in the Chugach National Forest. 

On the Tongass, work has occurred on the young growth forest inventory where state and federal staff have been working to collect and process stand and tree data. This information will help inform managers on the status of the transition from old growth to young growth timber management.

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FACTS & ECONOMIC IMPACT

• Alaska has 129 million acres of forested land, stretching from the coastal rain forest of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska to the boreal forest of the Interior.

• Four landlords manage Alaska’s forests: the federal government, 51%; state and local government, including trust lands supporting mental health programs and the University of Alaska, 25%; Native corporations, 24%; and private landowners, 0.4%.

• Most commercial timber harvesting has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily on federal and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Given less than one percent of Alaska is in conventional private ownership, private, non-industrial timberland owners play little role in supplying timber to industry. 

• Timber harvests on Native corporation, federal, Mental Health Trust, and University of Alaska lands reached approximately 100 million board feet in 2018 – the majority on Native corporation lands. On state lands, some 6,061 thousand board feet of timber was harvested in statewide timber sales from Southeast Alaska to the Interior.

• At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in America. Overall, 10 million acres of the Tongass is forested and 5.5 million acres is considered commercial timberland. (U.S. Forest Service)

• At 5.9 million acres, the Chugach National Forest in coastal Southcentral Alaska is the second largest forest in America. There is no commercial timber harvest occurring in the Chugach, nor is one provided for in the current management plan. (U.S. Forest Service)

• Current forest inventory data indicates the state owns 4.3 million acres of commercial forest capable of growing 20 cubic feet per acre annually.

• The State of Alaska Division of Forestry manages forests for multiple uses and sustained yield of renewable resources on 20 million acres of state land. This includes the Tanana Valley State Forest, the Haines State Forest, and the new Southeast Alaska State Forest. The Division conducts personal use, commercial timber, and fuel-wood sales. It emphasizes in-state use of wood for value-added processing.

• State timber sales help support mills in Southeast Alaska and are also used for lumber, house logs, and fuel wood in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry) 

• Although state timber sales in Southeast Alaska provided volume to local mills, in the long term state sales cannot sustain local mills without increased federal supply, given the state’s limited land base in the region. 

 • For each acre of the Tongass that is scheduled for timber harvest, there are 10 acres of land designated by Congress as Wilderness that will never be logged and another 14 acres that are managed for recreation, wildlife habitat and uses other than logging.

• Since 1907, only a little over 465,000 acres have been logged in the Tongass. Under the 2016 amended Tongass plan, only 0.4 percent of commercial-grade old-growth acreage will be harvested between now and 2116. (Alaska Forest Association, U.S. Forest Service)

• Two hundred years from now, at least 83 percent of the current old-growth will still remain intact in the forest. (U.S. Forest Service) 

• The young-growth in the Tongass is currently growing at a rate of over 500 million board feet annually. Unfortunately, it will be at least another 30 to 40 years before the young-growth is mature. (Alaska Forest Association)

• Logging and wood products employment remains a mere shadow of its past, falling from 4,600 jobs in 1990 to approximately 400 direct logging and manufacturing jobs in 2018. The industry also supported 100 federal jobs last year. (Alaska Forest Association)

• With an average wage nearly $10,000 higher than the average private sector wage, these are important jobs that continue to support families and communities. 

• Logging on Native corporation lands account for over two-thirds of all logging jobs in Alaska. (Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska Forest Association. 

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WEB LINKS

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SOURCES

• State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources
• State of Alaska Department of Labor
• U.S. Forest Service
• Alaska Forest Association

 

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