If one had to choose a theme for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s roundtable discussions on the Tongass National Forest, it would be “Access.”
Over and over, the senator and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke heard panelists say they need more access to the forest. Through roads, through less-cumbersome permitting, through whatever means. They want access.
It was a nearly three-hour discussion Friday at the Ketchikan public library. Below is a summary.
“The communities on the island have said this over and over again: Access to the forest, access to the forest. It’s so important,” Jon Bolling, administrator for the City of Craig, told Murkowski and Tooke. “Those roads are a wonderful public asset that are best left kept open. Because when they’re kept open, they’re used. I could go on way longer than you want me to talking about the merits of keeping the roads open and the benefits to the people of Prince of Wales. It’s just so key.”
Bolling was one of many panelists chosen for a couple of public roundtable discussions about the Tongass National Forest.
There were two panels, because there were so many panelists. They represented a wide variety of interests. A few environmental groups were invited, along with Sealaska Native Corp’s Jaeleen Kookesh. But, the panels leaned toward industry, commerce, and state and local governments.
Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis, for example, told Forest Service Chief Tooke that the borough is more than 96 percent Forest Service land, with just a tiny amount available for development and taxation.
Landis said that historically, that was OK because of all the jobs available on national land, most notably timber. But, he said, those jobs went away as the Forest Service started limiting the timber supply. In response, Congress provided a Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools payments, but now those amounts are seeing cuts, too.
“That distresses us, and we’re finding way to fill those holes,” Landis said. “But, to be honest, we would rather have the jobs back.”
So for Landis and Bolling, access would be improved by an exemption for the Tongass from the national Roadless Rule — which doesn’t allow new roads to be built in certain areas of the forest — as well as access for timber harvest.
The State of Alaska has filed a petition asking that the region be exempt from the Roadless Rule.
Access for other panelists means permits. Ben Anderson owns a heli-ski business in Haines. He said he’s trying to get a permit to expand onto Tongass land. They submitted their permit application in March of last year.
“We were told that it would take three years before the application would be reviewed,” he said. “Once it was reviewed, an environmental impact survey would most likely need to take place, and would take an unknown amount of time.”
Another recurring theme for many panelists was the plan for transitioning to a young-growth timber industry. The Forest Service went through a long process to come up with a transition plan that calls for a complete switch in 15 years.
Timber industry representatives have said, and continue to say that’s not feasible.
Bryce Dahlstrom from Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island said instead of switching from one to another, a solution would be to allow both, because his mill just can’t process young growth, and never will.
Dahlstrom gave an analogy: “I put it towards a fishing boat. You have a crew that you fish salmon. Your crew knows how to fish salmon. Your gear, your boat is set up to catch salmon. All of a sudden, someone comes and said, well you can’t catch salmon anymore, you’ve gotta catch halibut. Because, politically, we don’t want you to catch salmon anymore.”
Some of the conservationists on the panel, though, say the transition plan was the result of a great collaborative effort that shouldn’t be discounted.
Andrew Thoms is with the Sitka Conservation Society, and was a member of the Tongass Advisory Committee. The TAC came up with the blueprint for transitioning to second growth.
“I would say that the recommendations that we made are one of the best blueprints for a viable approach to Tongass management,” he said. “The recommendations are the assemblage of a huge wealth of experience and knowledge from people on the Tongass who work with the agency and with other stakeholders and landowner groups.”
Other panelists talked about the need to protect fish streams and fisheries in general; still others talked about the need to build electric utility infrastructure, and how challenging the federal permit process is for that work.
After the discussion, Tooke said he’ll take what he heard back to Washington, D.C., for discussions with the Secretary of Agriculture. He said he was listening for common themes – such as access — and proposed solutions – such as a slower transition to young growth.
Tooke said he heard about the quantity of young growth that would be needed to keep a mill running, and “I heard about timing around permitting. I heard a lot about using science and using data. That seemed to be really important to people, no matter who they were, that they have really informed decisions.”
Murkowski said hearing directly from people who live and work on the forest was valuable for Chief Tooke, and that’s why she invited him to visit Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island.
She said it appears that with President Trump’s administration, access to public lands will become easier.
“You have a new administration that has been relatively aggressive in talking about accessing America’s resources,” she said. “There hasn’t been the same spotlight on timber and management of our forests, you’re talking access generally. I think you have, at least at the top, I think you have a different perspective that we had.”
At least while this administration remains. Because, as she notes, administrations — and their policies — change.