Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, made an interesting point about the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday during a congressional hearing on federal timber policy.
It came while Young was highlighting the differences between the timber programs managed on State of Alaska lands versus those on federal land controlled by the Forest Service, saying that the Forest Service takes five years on average to put up a timber sale while the state only takes two years — and the state puts up a much higher percentage of its available timber than does the Forest Service.
“I look at this and the Forest Service is no longer the Forest Service, it’s the Park Service,” Young said. “They’re not trying to manage the timber.”
The concept of national forests as being mostly off-limits to timber harvesting was noted also by Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chelsea Goucher, who told the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Lands in Washington, D.C., that the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest encompassed 90 percent of the land in Southeast Alaska, “91 percent of which is categorized as roadless and therefore functionally unavailable for any type of development.”
This includes further development of hydropower generation, according to Goucher, who, in response to a question from Young, added that the Forest Service’s program for issuing special use permits for local businesses to provide services for cruise ship passengers in the Tongass is inadequate to meet the demand.
The picture emerges of an agency that can not or will not provide for timber harvesting as part of the multiple-use mandate for national forest lands, nor does it accommodate demand for recreational use of the national forest.
Has it, as Young suggests, simply become a manager of off-limits parks?
Not yet. But it might have few choices for anything but hands-off management soon.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts, remarked about how $700 million had been transferred out of this year’s Forest Service budget for non-fire items and into efforts to fight wildfires.
That’s $700 million moved out of things like timber sales programs and recreation nationwide, just this year.
Now, it doesn’t sound like the wildfire situations in the Lower 48 are likely to improve anytime soon, although Young did assert that the current wildfires are the result of decades of inadequate forest management.
Nor are there indications that future federal budgets will boost Forest Service funding in the near or long terms.
What becomes of the Forest Service then?
Some trends have begun to surface.
Nationally, the agency’s ranks have thinned during the past decade. Young railed about the number of boats and kayaks visible in Forest Service lots, but even the agency’s frontline facilities appear to be operating with fewer staff. Local trail maintenance appears to be falling off. Some recreational cabins have been closed, and some Forest Service roads in southern Southeast Alaska have being taken out of service.
On the timber side, constantly having to sort through legal actions over every sale involving old-growth forest must be a serious drain on Forest Service coffers. The agency also is torn between competing viewpoints on harvesting timber.
At what point does the Forest Service become unable to actively manage national forests for multiple-uses — or any use? When will it be reduced to just patrolling the fence around a de-facto Tongass National Monument?
This dim view of the agency’s present and future capabilities to provide for multiple-use development is a likely factor in Young’s legislation that would allow states to select and acquire federal national forest land for timber harvesting and other uses.
Introduced Tuesday, Young’s “State National Forest Management Act of 2015” would allow states to acquire up to 2 million acres of national forest service land. Goucher spoke in support of the concept Tuesday, saying that it could result in 2,500 jobs in Alaska.
“State managed lands are accountable to clear mandates and generate significant revenues for stakeholders, while federally managed lands often lose taxpayer money and frustrate local development and community growth,” she said.
There’s logic to the proposal. If the feds can’t or won’t actively manage the land, why not give some of that land to the states?
We look forward to seeing what Congress does with this concept.
Meanwhile, Alaska should ensure that it’s capable of administering any lands received from the federal government. Gutting the state timber offices — something that the Alaska Legislature was poised to do earlier this year — isn’t the way to go.
— Ketchikan Daily News,