Susitna State Forest

March 3, 2014

Mr. Jim Schwarber
State of Alaska Division of Forestry
3700 Airport Road
F airbanks, AK 99709

Re: Scoping process for Southeast State Forest Management Plan

Dear Mr. Schwarber:

The Resource Development Council (RDC) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on the scoping process for the Southeast Alaska State Forest draft management plan.

RDC is a statewide non-profit business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, forest products, fisheries and tourism industries. RDC’s membership also includes Alaska Native corporations, local communities, organized labor and industry-support firms. RDC’s purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

RDC was a strong supporter of the legislation creating the Southeast State Forest in 2010 and subsequent legislation, which added additional units to the forest in 2011. Currently, RDC is working to encourage the Legislature to pass HB 79, which would create the Susitna State Forest.

A major goal of RDC is to build a more diverse and vibrant economy in Southeast Alaska through the restoration of a fully integrated forest products industry. The economic benefits of a healthy forest industry to residents, local communities, and the State of Alaska are significant. The forest industry could once again be a cornerstone of the region’s economy, providing direct and indirect year-round jobs and ongoing economic stimulus to local communities.

As you know, the Tongass National Forest (TNF) is well known for its timber resource base, but the vast majority is closed to active forest management. Only 320,000 acres of the 16.7-millon acre TNF is open to logging. Overall, less than six percent of Southeast Alaska is available for timber harvesting. An adequate long-term supply of economic timber is absolutely essential if the forest industry is to play a major role in rebuilding the region’s economy.

In Southeast Alaska, demand for timber exceeds supply and local mills are dependent on a consistent supply to stay in business. The majority of the timber is on federal land, but federal timber sales have declined sharply. Subsequently, the demand for state timber from local mills has increased significantly. While the Southeast State Forest does not have the timber base to fully support the industry, it can provide a stable supply of timber to local mills and supplement declining timber harvests on the TNF. It can also provide relief to the industry while it waits for increasing second-growth harvests from the TNF in coming decades.

RDC believes the Southeast State Forest should be managed as a working forest to furnish a continuous supply of timber to the industry. A working forest is one that recognizes the human component of our forest, incentivizes workforce development and local jobs, while providing opportunities to enhance wildlife habitat, recreation, and subsistence activities. A working forest provides many benefits to local communities and can be a cornerstone of their economies.

For decades, the TNF was managed as a working forest, and the Southeast Alaska economy thrived. The forest industry was one of the largest economic sectors in Alaska with 4,600 jobs, mostly spread throughout the Southeast Panhandle. Large manufacturing facilities were major anchors of the region’s economy and local tax base.

However, the industry has undergone a major transformation in the past 20 years with new land withdrawals and adverse federal public policy decisions sharply curtailing the timber supply to local mills. Today, only four percent of the entire TNF is available for harvest, while about 85 percent of the forest’s largest old-growth remains untouched.

Under the federal government’s current management direction, the TNF is likely to produce little in the way of resources to support local economies. Changes to the Tongass Land Management Plan have trumped the congressional mandate to provide for the needs of citizens and communities. The evolution of forest management has effectively redefined the very purpose for which the national forests were established, in direct contradiction to the congressional intent. Although the TNF was established as a working forest, today it is being managed more like a national park.

Given so much of Southeast Alaska is preserved in land management classifications that preclude logging, it is imperative that timber production be the primary use of the Southeast Alaska State Forest. The new management plan for the forest should provide for a reliable, long-term supply of economic timber to the industry.

Much of the new state forest was inherited from the Forest Service with young second-growth stands. These stands should be actively managed to provide for more timber volume per acre on shorter rotations. The shift to second-growth harvesting can be accelerated and timber volume increased on state land by thinning these stands. Thinning is a long-term investment, but it is justified, given the pressing need for a stable, long-term supply of timber.

RDC also supports other multiple uses of the state forest, including recreational activities, subsistence, wildlife habitat and harvest, and access to other economy-building opportunities, such as mineral exploration and development, should future prospects arise or access across the state forest be required to reach projects elsewhere.

The Alaska Forest Practices Act should serve as the standard to protect water quality and fish habitat in the state forest. The Best Management Practices under this program are overseen by the diverse Board of Forestry, which has concluded that these are effective standards based on scientific compliance and monitoring.

With an adequate long-term supply of timber, the forest industry can make investments in manufacturing and ramp up its operations. These investments can be made by private industry without government funding. All that is needed is an adequate supply of suitable, economic timber.

RDC appreciates the opportunity to comment on the development of a draft management plan for the Southeast Alaska State Forest.

Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.