U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today called on U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to take immediate steps to reverse declining timber harvests and return the Tongass National Forest to a working forest.
Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pressed Tidwell on the need to increase timber harvest in the Tongass to create jobs, stimulate local economies, and maintain the health of the forest.
"Southeast Alaska is now, and has historically been, a resource dependent economy directly tied to the federal land that dominates it. Yet over the past 20 years, the forest industry, once the second-largest industry in the state, has been in decline," Murkowski said.
Ninety-five percent of Southeast Alaska's land base is federally controlled. The Tongass -- at 17 million acres -- makes up 80 percent of that federal land.
Political and economic pressures, increased federal land withdrawals, a more stringent regulatory climate and environmental lawsuits have forced the closure of Southeast Alaska's two pulp mills.
"The Tongass Land Use Management Plan push toward ecosystem management, and the reinstatement of the roadless rule, have also sharply reduced allowable harvest levels, leading to the closure of most of the sawmills in the region," Murkowski said. "A single large sawmill in Wrangell and a handful of mom-and-pop operations are all that is left."
The principle barrier to job creation in Southeast is insufficient timber volume from the Tongass National Forest.
"The Tongass is harvesting just 35 million board feet annually on average over the last 10 years. Last year it was just 21 million board feet. That is unacceptable," Murkowski said. "What's left of the timber industry is hanging on by its fingernails, and with it the jobs, schools and futures of many of my constituents."
Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch, who testified at Tuesday's hearing, echoed Murkowski's point stating that logging and associated jobs have fallen from 4,600 positions in 1990, to fewer than 500 jobs in 2011. He offered alternative approaches to management of the Tongass to increase timber harvests and create jobs, including possible state management of a portion of the Tongass.
The hearing made clear that the federal agencies, and the communities that depend on timber harvesting, cannot increase the harvest without action by Congress.
"Congress must help figure out a way forward on forest management that provides some relief from over burdensome regulations, confusing policy and litigation by third parties," Murkowski said.
Murkowski will visit Southeast Alaska with Forest Chief Tidwell in August to look at the need to increase timber harvests in the Tongass.