Alaska locals want a sliver of the forest

One town seeks a novel deal with Forest Service: Log less, and plan for the long term.

Deep in the Tongass National Forest, Greg Streveler and Judy Brakel subsist almost entirely on food harvested from their wild backyard.

Yet there's one staple, they say, that the sheltering rain forest has not yielded to most southeast Alaskans: Homes made from local timber.

"We have these wonderful old-growth trees on the Tongass - yellow and red cedar, spruce and hemlock - that for years have been liquidated for pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the wood we need for home construction in Alaska is imported. It doesn't make sense," explains Mr. Steveler, a retired naturalist who worked for years in Glacier Bay National Park.

He and other Gustavusans are among a growing number of conservationists advocating for "micrologging," or small-scale timbering, as an ecologically sound alternative to clear-cutting and constructing more logging roads at taxpayer expense.

Richard Haynes, a Forest Service economist, says Alaskans, strangely, are plagued by a timber shortage, even though the American market is glutted with cheap wood coming from Canada and pine forests in the Southeastern US.

Part of the blame, he admits, resides with his agency. For 50 years, small timber companies in Alaska were unable to win contracts from the Forest Service which favored large outfits that exported raw logs to markets in Asia and the lower 48, but kept few in state.

Mr. Haynes says the Forest Service still favors large operators because it costs less to sell a single huge tract of timber than it does to prepare a series of smaller sales that add up to the same volume of wood.

This summer, citizens in tiny Gustavus are challenging that paradigm. They are asking the Forest Service to radically change the way it does business. Instead of bidding for 10 million board feet of public timber that would have to be logged over the next 10 years, residents want the flexibility to harvest half a million board feet annually for 200 years.

Logger Vince Schafer says that making small amounts available to locals would bring far more economic benefits than giving the contracts to big firms.

The idea of "micrologging"has its origins in the timber wars that raged in the lower 48 states a decade ago. Concerns over spotted owls resulted in the government scaling back old-growth logging in the Northwest.

To give struggling timber communities a boost, the Clinton administration awarded 84 pilot "stewardship contracts" that promised Western mom-and-pop mill owners access to a steady timber supply while thinning forests to reduce wildfires.

The program, inherited by the Bush administration, has produced a few success stories. And now, the administration wants to expand the program by reopening pristine stretches of federal forestlands previously set off limits.

"My problem with the whole national forest timber debate is that it's become a quagmire of either/or," says Maia Enzer with the conservation group Sustainable Northwest in Portland. "The public has been forced to side with either the timber industry or with conservationists who want to keep areas untouched. We need to have both. The people who occupy the middle ground are small-scale loggers."

Down the road from Streveler's and Brakel's property, Paul Barnes proudly shows off his home. "Every stick of it is made with Tongass timber," he says, yet acknowledging that most Alaskans now could order wood from Seattle 1,200 miles away, more cheaply.

Mr. Barnes claims the Forest Service is deliberately ignoring the Gustavus alternative, but Pete Griffin, the Tongass district ranger who has read the proposal says he is listening. Mr. Griffin points to Prince of Wales Island where several logging companies of various sizes are benefitting from micrologging that departs from traditional clear-cutting by harvesting trees reachable from the existing system of logging roads. Joanne Cabe, who owns Thorne Bay Wood Products with her husband, Rick, credits the Forest Service with helping them expand their sawmill operation.

She says, however, the Forest Service hasn't given them as many trees as they need. "This has been our toughest year," Mrs. Cabe says. "Giving us access to wood through microsales isn't enough."

Barnes says that as the Bush administration pushes to cut more Tongass timber, to the exclusion of small mills, large logging companies are still not bidding on sales because they're still unprofitable.

As the Tongass draws flak opening pristine roadless areas to logging, district ranger Griffin acknowledges that its still hard to attract bidders because without public subsidies to build roads, accessing the trees, cutting them down, and getting them to a distant market is too expensive.

A decision on the Gustavus plan is expected in weeks. Economist Haynes says the only future for loggers in Alaska resides in catering to niche markets and the needs of Alaskans themselves. "Some in the timber industry ... cling to a 'Field of Dreams' scenario. They believe that if only we cut more trees, the good old days will return," he adds. "But for Congress, it all comes down to funding priorities and the ways that one wants to subsidize timber production on national forests."

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