U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today pressed Obama administration officials to more actively manage the nation's public forests to ensure both healthy ecosystems and economies in rural communities surrounded by national forest lands.
Thursday's hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered two different approaches to improving forestry management, the Oregon and California Land Grant Act (S. 1784) and the National Forest Jobs and Management Act (S. 1966).
Murkowski said a national approach is badly needed to resolve the failures of the current management of the nation's forests, including Alaska's Tongass National Forest. She welcomed introduction of the National Forest Jobs and Management Act, which would create a nationwide pilot program to increase timber harvests and provide economic support for local communities.
"When it comes to management of our national forests, the current situation is simply unacceptable. That is especially true in the Tongass," Murkowski said. "What is needed is a nationwide approach that addresses the systematic roadblocks that exist to increasing the pace and scale of active forest management, including timber harvests."
The National Forest Jobs and Management Act, recently introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), would direct the Forest Service to prioritize timber harvests over the next 15 years to respond to the forest health and rural economic crisis that exists as a result of the failure to manage our national forests. The bill sets a target of 7.5 million acres that would be required to be harvested over the 15-year period. The timber harvest would occur only on acres already identified in existing forest management plans as suitable for timber harvest.
The 7.5 million acres covered in the Barrasso bill represents less than 4 percent of the National Forest Service's 193 million acres, and only about 17 percent of the 44.1 million acres designated as suitable for timber production in current national forest plans.
In Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the current forest management plan has identified approximately 600,000 acres suitable for harvest. However, the Forest Service has failed to provide anywhere near that amount of timber to keep local industry viable. The reinstatement under the Obama administration of the Clinton-era roadless rule has only made a bad situation worse, Murkowski said.
"Providing the Forest Service with a clear timber harvest management mandate is a key part of getting us back on track," Murkowski said. "In Alaska, we need to do more because the reinstatement of the roadless rule is crippling our communities in Southeast. I believe we need to repeal the rule, but at the very least the Forest Service must provide flexibility in how it applies the rule in the Tongass."
Murkowski told Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, who testified at Thursday's hearing, that she wanted a report on what he's done to date to provide more flexibility in the application of the roadless rule in the Tongass. Tidwell agreed last summer to review the impact of the roadless rule on Tongass communities and to take administrative steps to minimize its economic effect.
The Forest Service manages more than 22 million acres of national forest lands in Alaska, including nearly all of the land in Southeast. The roadless rule covers an additional 60 million acres or 3 percent of the entire national system. More than 9 million acres of the Tongass are locked up under the federal government's most restrictive land protection designations -- either in wilderness or under the roadless rule.
"The dominant use today in our national forests is everything but timber harvests. That must change if our communities are going to survive," Murkowski said.
Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has cosponsored legislation (S. 384) to exempt Alaska from the roadless rule.