The Tongass National Forest is home to about 75,000 people who are dependent on the land for their livelihoods. Several Alaska Native tribes live throughout Southeast Alaska, such as the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. 31 communities are located within the forest; the largest is Juneau, the state capital, with a population of 31,000. The forest is named for the Tongass group of the Tlingit people, who inhabited the southernmost areas of the Alaska panhandle near what is now Ketchikan.
Unique and protected features seldom found anywhere else in North America inhabit the thousands of islands along the Alaska coast. Five species of salmon, brown and black bear, and Bald eagles abound throughout the forest.
Though its land area is huge, about 40% of the Tongass is composed of wetlands, snow, ice, rock, and non-forest vegetation, while the remaining 10 million acres are forested. About 5 million acres are considered “productive old-growth”, and 4.5 million of those acres are preserved as wilderness areas.
Historically, logging operations tended to concentrate on lower elevation, bigger tree ecosystems for harvesting; at present, approximately 78% of these acres remain intact (383,000 out of 491,000 original big tree, low elevation forest acres). Given the high value of these areas for wildlife species, close to 70% of this big-tree old growth forest is protected in reserves, and will never be eligible for harvest.
Of all of the big-tree old growth on the forest, including both low and higher elevation areas, no more than 11% of the remaining acres will ever be harvested. Of the 5.7 million “productive old-growth” acres on the Forest, 676,000 acres, or 12% of the old-growth on the Forest, are slated for harvest over the next 10 years.
Timber harvest in Southeast Alaska was comprised of individual handlogging operations up until the 1950s, focusing on lowlying areas and beach fringe areas. In the 1950s, in part to aid in Japanese recovery from World War II, the Forest Service set up long-term contracts with two pulp mills: the Ketchikan Pulp Company and the Alaska Pulp Company. These contracts were scheduled to last 50 years, and originally intended to complement independent sawlog operations in the region. However, the two companies conspired to drive log prices down, put smaller logging operations out of business, and were major and recalcitrant polluters in their local areas. Ultimately, virtually all timber sales on the Tongass were purchased by one of these two companies.
Much of the power of these companies lay in the long-term contracts themselves. The contracts guaranteed low prices to the pulp companies — in some cases resulting in trees being given away for "less than the price of a hamburger." The contracts were cancelled in 1999, and the pulp mills closed their doors in the early 2000s.
In 2003, an appropriations bill rider required that all timber sales on the Tongass must be positive sales, meaning, no sales could be sold that undervalued the "stumpage" rate, or the value of the trees as established by the marketplace (2008 Appropriations Bill P.L. 110-161, H. Rept. 110-497, Sec. 411). However, the Forest Service also conducts NEPA analyses, layout, and administrative operations to support these sales, and as such, the government does not make a profit overall. Given the guaranteed low prices during contract days and the continued high cost of logging in Southeast Alaska today, one analysis concludes that, since 1980, the forest service has lost over a billion dollars in Tongass timber sales. Logging operations are not the only deficit-run programs, however. The Forest Service likens the overall deficit of the timber harvest program to the many other programs the agency operates at a deficit, including trail, cabin, and campground maintenance and subsistence programs.
About 70% of the old growth trees in Tongass have been logged. The karst terrain produces much larger trees and fewer muskeg bogs and has been preferentially logged.
As of 2008, the forest service has released a new amendment to the Forest Plan for the Tongass Forest.
The Tongass National Forest was included in the Roadless Initiative passed on 5 January, 2001, during the last days of the Bill Clinton Administration, and the initiative prevented the construction of new roads in currently roadless areas of United States national forests.
However, several governors of western states soon joined forces with the timber industry to overturn the roadless policy. The George W. Bush Administration has declined to defend the policy in the courts and the U.S. Forest Service has largely exempted the Tongass from roadless protections.
In September 2006, a landmark court decision overturned Bush's repeal of the Roadless Rule, reverting to the 2001 roadless area protections established under president Clinton. However, the Tongass remained exempt from that ruling, and it is currently unclear what the fate of its vast roadless areas will be.
In June 2007, U.S. House members added an amendment to the appropriations bill to block federally-funded road building in Tongass National Forest. Proponents of the amendment said that the federal timber program in Tongass is a dead loss for taxpayers, costing some $30 million annually, and noted that the Forest Service faces an estimated $900 million road maintenance backlog in the forest. Supporters of the bipartisan amendment included the Republicans for Environmental Protection. Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who sponsored the amendment, said "I am not opposed to logging when it's done on the timber company's dime...But in this case, they are using the American taxpayer to subsidize these 200 jobs at the tune of $200,000 per job. That just makes no sense."
Under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, of the Tongass were selected by Alaska Native Regional Corporations. These lands are therefore not National Forest land, not subject to the legislation dictating management of the Tongass. Most of the areas have been clearcut.
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