Questioning the Economics of Logging Our Largest National Forest

Conservationists say the future the country's largest national forest could be undercut by flawed assumptions about the economics of turning trees into logwood.

As the US Forest Service makes court-ordered revisions to its development plans for the Tongass National Forest, the Wilderness Society has issued an analysis that counters the agency's rosier projections for the value of lumber culled from the 17-million acre expanse in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass harbors the world's largest temperate rainforest and 19 wilderness areas.

Assuming a growth in Asia's need to import lumber and expansions in Southeast Alaska's wood-processing industry, most of the Forest Service's projections anticipate a potential steep rise in timber demand over the next two decades. But economists working with the Wilderness Society say the government is ignoring negative realities facing Southeast Alaska's timber sector.

The alternative analysis argues that demand for timber from the Tongass is on the decline. According to records of federal timber sales from fiscal years 1996 to 2005, the volume of purchased timber that companies let idle uncut each year exceeded the amount they harvested. Overall demand has dwindled in recent years, the analysis states, due to global competition, weak commercial infrastructure and harsh terrain.

The ramifications of these challenges, the authors noted, are not explored in detail in the Forest Service's assessment. Economists working with conservationists say the government is ignoring evidence that the timber sector is on the decline in Southeast Alaska.

At a press conference presenting the Wilderness Society's findings this week, Spencer Phillips, a senior resource economist with the organization, said, "There is a huge overestimate of the need to harvest timber from the Tongass National Forest in order to meet demand." Meanwhile, he added, the Forest Service has "grossly underestimated" the value of more-holistic uses of forest resources, such as recreation or subsistence food harvesting.

Logging is a basic component of all seven of the Forest Service's long-term development options for the Tongass. The volume of timber that could be sold annually under the various land-use schemes ranges from about 50 million to over 420 million board-feet -- from a land-base of 430,000 acres to 1.15 million acres. Currently, maximum allowable sale volume from the forest is 267 million board-feet. Yet on average since fiscal year 1998, only 67 million board-feet of Tongass wood has been purchased annually through federal timber sales.

Though the Forest Service says it has not settled on a preferred option, the Southeast Conference, a regional business and development association, is pushing for an allowance of more than 400 million board-feet, arguing that historically, many timber sales were "uneconomic" because of conservation requirements that the industry deemed overly burdensome.

Environmentalists warn that overemphasizing the potential of the timber industry will spur further subsidization of logging and undermine the ecological integrity of the Tongass.

Dennis Neill, a spokesperson with the Forest Service, defended the agency's analysis as scientifically sound and peer-reviewed. But he noted that ultimately, "you can't know what's going to happen -- you can only make projections. And then as responsible land managers, it's our job to say, 'Okay, these are reasonable projections, what are potential consequences of making such a choice?'"

Citing a need for a diverse use of forest resources, Neill said: "For us to not use our own wood for our own benefit would be as silly as for us to not eat our fish. We have the opportunity, and frankly we have the right, for our citizens to rely on the resources that surround us."

The pending plan revises an earlier Forest Service assessment under the mandate of a 2005 federal court ruling. The Ninth Circuit found the original environmental analysis was based on highly inflated estimates for timber demand.

The Wilderness Society warns that overemphasizing the potential of the timber industry will spur further subsidization of logging through road-building and federal timber sales, which could impinge on sensitive old-growth tree habitats and undermine the ecological integrity of the Tongass.

The group urged the Forest Service to revise its projections and base its long-term plan on a more sustainable mix of economic activity, with a greater emphasis on tourism and recreation alongside limited timber production.

According to the Forest Service's own data, total employment related to tourism and recreation in Southeast Alaska provided about 6,900 jobs in 2004, while the wood-products industry generated about 941.

Deborah Perkins, Alaska Forest Program Manager with the Wilderness Society, said that while logging plays a part in local development, "The timber industry has had their fair share. Its time for looking at ways to chart a new course for a balanced economy that serves the interest of communities."

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