Gravina Island across the Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan. (Wikimedia Commons image by Wknight94.)

After new federal plans were set in motion last year, old-growth logging in Alaska’s forests is on its way out. Still, the feds have to make some timber sales available in the Tongass National Forest. And so, the U.S. Forest Service is in the early stages of planning one of its first young growth sales since the switch, just outside of Ketchikan.

Mike Sallee is a small-mill operator in Ketchikan, who deals mostly in dead and down trees. He owns a homestead on Gravina Island.

His neighbors on Gravina are big landowners, like the state, the feds and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Plus, the university and mental health trusts — all of which can sell trees on their land for profit.

In the past, Sallee said, some of the landowners haven’t left Gravina in good shape after a harvest. He’s noticed a tangle of trees still on the ground after they’re done logging.

“In places that I had been hiking through and hunting for decades was basically turned into like a blowdown,” he said.

Which is why Sallee said he’s not enthusiastic about a road the state is building on the island, slated to be completed this year.

The road could make it easier for more timber sales to pencil out, including one planned by the U.S. Forest Service. The agency has a new obligation: bringing more young-growth trees from the Tongass to the market.

Between the many landowners and the new road, there’s a kind of menu. An a la carte of trees.

“Access, access, access. Everybody wants to have access to their lands,” said Buck Lindekugel, a grassroots attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council or SEACC.

His organization petitioned the feds to transition away from old-growth logging in the Tongass. So you’d think he’d consider harvesting the young trees to be a victory. But it’s not that simple.

“There’s some steep slopes in there so there’s real concern,” he said. “It might not be the best thing to go back onto this land.”

Lindekugel said at the bottom of the slopes are salmon streams, and he worries the proposed logging could damage the area.

He thinks the federal agency should learn from its past mistakes and stop clear cutting.

“We think the forest service needs to have a lighter touch on these areas,” he said. “Pull out some marketable products but at the same time don’t unravel the habitat.”

“This stuff was all clear-cut once before. It needs to be clear cut again and start it all over,” said Eric Nichols, who is eyeing the young-growth sale for his company: Alcan Forest Products, which specializes in buying timber.

And he admits times have been tough for the industry. A death spiral, as he puts it. It’s estimated there are only a few hundred timber jobs left in the region.

Part of the problem, Nichols said, is there hasn’t been a steady supply of trees. So while this young growth sale is relatively small, at least it’s something. And if the Forest Service wants a buyer, Nichols thinks there shouldn’t be any more limitations.

“So it’s either get it now with these other landowners or they’re not going to be able to get it in the future,” he said.

Once harvested, a company like Nichols’ would likely send the young growth to be milled in Asia.

Buck Lindekugel from SEACC said he doesn’t see the timber industry or the argument over the national forest going away — even with the young-growth transition.

“But it’s not going to be like it was in the past where timber was first in the Tongass. Those days are over,” he said.

Instead, Lindekugel imagines small-mill operators like Mike Sallee selling specialty products from salvaged logs and more trees left in the ground on places like Gravina Island.

The Forest Service is taking public comment on its young-growth plans for Gravina Island. The agency is trying to figure out how to harvest the trees and if the sale is viable. The comment period ends June 9.