Remains of a Tongass clear-cut and logging road north of Ketchikan. New growth in parts of the forest could be cut to jump-start a modern timber industry, a report says. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Remains of a Tongass clear-cut and logging road north of Ketchikan. New growth in parts of the forest could be cut to jump-start a modern timber industry, a report says. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Tongass National Forest officials want the timber industry to log and process fewer old trees. They’re planning a 10- to-15-year transition to harvesting younger forests.

Two Oregon researchers, one an industry consultant and the other an environmental activist, say it can happen sooner. Here, they talk about their plan, one of several under discussion.

Loggers working the Tongass National Forest harvested large numbers of older trees from the 1950s through much of the 1990s.

Harvests have since slowed, and in recent years, almost stopped.

Tongass officials and environmental groups say the future is in young- or second-growth, mostly trees that have grown back after earlier decades’ clear-cuts.

But that’s a challenging goal.

“Transitioning out of old growth and into young growth, you cannot just flip a switch and do it,” says Catherine Mater, president of Mater Engineering, where she consults for timber companies on industry issues.

She’s based in Corvallis, Ore., but has worked in Southeast for Viking Lumber and the Sealaska Corp.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that all old-growth logging is going to go away. But I do feel very optimistic that there’s an opportunity to have a transition and replacement from a majority of old growth now to a majority of young growth,” she says.

Mater’s partnered with Dominick DellaSala of the Ashland, Ore.,-based Geos Institute, which researches climate change and related environmental issues.

Together, they’re promoting a study detailing how the Tongass National Forest can quickly change from old-growth to younger-growth harvests.

DellaSala says they began by looking at the most controversial forest stands, the ones that lead to appeals and lawsuits.

“So we took those off the table. And then we wanted to see what was left, where we could come up with some higher levels of certainty, where the wood can get to the mills quicker without litigation, without the appeals and without the expenses that go into that,” he says.

They also eliminated areas too far away from roads, or otherwise economically unfeasible.

Mater says that leaves enough land to start a sustainable young-growth timber industry. That includes forests that could produce 25 million to 30 million board feet of timber – very soon.

“We have pre-commercially-thinned lands in the national forest system that offer a unique opportunity to do that,” she says.

She — and DellaSala — say a young-growth  industry could start now and be fully functional in about five years. That’s less than the 10- to 15-year period projected by the Forest Service.

Another difference: They say 55-year-old trees can be harvested, while the agency usually considers 90 as the minimum marketable age.

Mater says the new industry would be different from what we have today.

She says it would move from construction — or dimensional – lumber to smaller, more heavily processed products.

“This is the stuff that goes into your windows and doors that you see in your homes and in your buildings, in panel-grade material and in custom-grade material. No one has evaluated Southeast Alaska second-growth material in those particular grade factors,” she says.

She says that research could be done in about a year and a half.

Many looking at the issue question whether second-growth Tongass timber can compete with large Pacific Northwest tree farmers, which have been in the business for decades.

Mater says that used to be an issue, but not anymore.

“The reality is that the U.S. markets are already familiar with Southeast Alaska wood species going into those higher value-added markets. What we don’t know, and this is what we are going to test, is whether we can get that same characteristic coming out of old-growth that goes into factories and shops from second-growth,” she says.

Mater says new mills would need to be built to process the younger trees. But she says some old-growth harvests would continue to keep existing mills going.

DellaSala says making the transition – soon — is the only choice. Otherwise, the Tongass will become like Pacific Northwest forests that were badly damaged before such changes kicked in.

“If it goes in the direction of continued old-growth logging, it runs into a wall of litigation and uncertainty for all the stakeholders. If you go the direction of where Catherine Mater’s report has been guiding our analysis, then you have the potential for a wall of wood, and much more certainty,” he says.

DellaSala and Mater have submitted their report to Tongass officials, who are planning such a transition with the help of an advisory committee.

They’ve also toured Southeast, presenting their finds to environmental and timber organizations.

Here’s a “20/20” segment from 1983 illustrating logging at the time in the Tongass National Forest.