In the 1970s the forest sector was the second largest industry in Alaska. However, government policy and federal land use shifts in the 1990s radically transformed the industry. Yet forestry still holds much potential to diversify the economy. The forest industry utilizes a renewable resource in a sustainable way, providing jobs and biomass energy for the 49th state.
Most commercial logging has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily in the Tongass National Forest and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Sitka spruce and western hemlock of very high quality have been exported as logs, lumber and timbers into the Pacific Rim for the past five decades. During much of this time, the lower quality portion of the timber was used to produce dissolving pulp, which was sold around the world for producing rayon, pharmaceuticals and paper products.
Products produced by Alaska mills include large cants and flitches, shop lumber destined for remanufacture, dimensional lumber, railway ties, shakes and shingles, music wood, and a host of specialty and craft products.
Over the past 25 years, the industry has been in decline. Political and economic pressures, increased federal land withdrawals, a more stringent regulatory climate and environmental lawsuits forced the closure of Southeast Alaska’s two pulp mills. The Tongass Land Use Management Plan, issued in 1997 and amended in 2008, sharply reduced allowable harvest levels.
Clearly, federal policies and management practices have failed to provide sufficient timber supply for what remains of Southeast Alaska’s timber industry. Each time the Forest Service has revised its management plan for the Tongass, it has increased its emphasis on non-timber amenities and reduced the amount of land available to grow and harvest timber.
Prior to 1976, the agency was managing 5 million acres for timber production on a sustainable basis. After 1980, the agency planned to utilize 3 million acres primarily for timber production. A 2008 amended plan reduced potential harvests over the next 100 years to a land base of only 663,000 acres. About half of that acreage is young-growth currently too young to harvest without robbing the trees of their best growth potential. Yet the current federal administration is now discussing restricting the timber sale program to only the young-growth stands that are not in reserves and buffers, which total about 300,000 acres – 1 percent of the acreage that was managed for timber production prior to 1990.
Timber harvests have fallen to all-time record lows in the Tongass, including the cutting of only 19 million board feet (mmbf) in 2007 and 21 mmbf in 2012. In recent years, the harvest has averaged 35 mmbf. To put these harvests in perspective, the annual logging ceiling under the current forest plan is 267 mmbf. The annual sustainable harvest level for the Tongass set under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 was 520 mmbf.
The timber industry was once a major pillar of Alaska’s economy, accounting for 4,000 jobs. Most of these jobs are now gone, and approximately 94 percent of the Tongass remains closed to timber harvesting and no commercial harvests are taking place in the Chugach, the nation’s second largest forest.
The downward spiral of the Southeast Alaska timber industry has adversely affected local communities, schools, and economies. However, creation of the Southeast State Forest in 2011 was a good start to securing a state-owned land base for forest management in that region.
More harvests are now taking place on state lands, including the “boreal” forest in Interior Alaska, which contains stands of white spruce, cottonwood, aspen and paper birch. In fact, the industry in Interior Alaska is experiencing slow, but steady growth as wood biomass projects are developed to meet community needs for economic space heating and electrical generation.
Timber harvests on state, federal, Native corporation, Mental Health Trust, and University of Alaska lands reached approximately 153 mmbf last year. On state lands, some 37,842 mmbf of timber was harvested in statewide timber sales from Southeast Alaska to the Interior.
The timber industry across Alaska supported more than 700 direct jobs (Jan-Sept), including service sector employment. With an average wage nearly $10,000 higher than the average private sector wage, these are important jobs that continue to support families and communities. The industry also supported 105 federal jobs last year.
In 2015, the State of Alaska timber sale program will focus on meeting demand for timber sales in Southcentral and Interior Alaska while maintaining timber sale activity in southern Southeast to help offset uncertain federal timber supply.
On the federal side, the Forest Service will be amending the 2008 Tongass Land Management Plan. A five-year review of the current plan found that changes need to be made in order to meet the current administration’s goals of transitioning to a predominantly young growth-based timber program in the next 10 to 15 years.
• Alaska has 129 million acres of forested land, stretching from the coastal rain forest of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska to the boreal forest of the Interior.
• Four landlords manage Alaska’s forests: the federal government, 51%; state and local government, including trust lands supporting mental health programs and the University of Alaska, 25%; Native corporations, 24%; and private landowners, 0.4%.
• Most commercial timber harvesting has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily on federal and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Given less than one percent of Alaska is in conventional private ownership, private, non-industrial timberland owners play little role in supplying timber to industry.
• Current forest inventory data indicates the state owns 4.3 million acres of commercial forest capable of growing 20 cubic feet per acre annually.
• Logging and wood products employment remains a mere shadow of its past, falling from 4,600 jobs in 1990 to approximately 297 logging jobs, 400 wood products manufacturing jobs, and 32 service sector jobs in 2014 (Jan-Sept). In addition, there were 105 federal jobs connected to the industry. (Alaska Department of Labor)
• Logging on Native corporation lands account for over two-thirds of all logging jobs in Alaska. (Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska Forest Association)
• In 2014, approximately 153 million board feet of timber was harvested in Alaska – 37,842 mmbf from state land, 39 mmbf from the Tongass National Forest, 70 mmbf from Native corporation land in Southeast Alaska, Kodiak and Afognak islands, and 5 mmbf on Alaska Mental Health Trust land. In addition, The University of Alaska completed two sales in the Petersburg area on Mitkof Island. The Wrangell Narrows East Timber Sale had a total net volume of 1.353 mmbf and the South Mitkof Island Timber Sale netted 1.201 mmbf.
• The State of Alaska Division of Forestry manages forests for multiple uses and sustained yield of renewable resources on 20 million acres of state land. This includes the Tanana Valley State Forest, the Haines State Forest, and the new Southeast Alaska State Forest. The Division conducts personal use, commercial timber, and fuel-wood sales. It emphasizes in-state use of wood for value-added processing.
• In 2014, state timber sales supported mills in Southeast Alaska, which have been hit hard by declines in federal sales. State timber sales were also used for lumber, house logs, and fuel wood in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
• Although state timber sales in Southeast Alaska provided critical volume to local mills, in the long term state sales cannot sustain local mills without increased federal supply, given the state’s limited land base in the region.
• Timber harvests in the Tongass are likely to be constrained again in 2015, due to litigation by environmental groups targeting timber sales across the forest and federal land management policy.
• At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in America. Overall, 10 million acres of the Tongass is forested and 5.5 million acres is considered commercial timberland. (U.S. Forest Service)
• The annual harvest level for the Tongass was originally set by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act at 520 mmbf, the typical volume of timber harvested from the forest on an annual basis prior to 1980.
• Since 1907, only a little over 400,000 acres have been logged in the Tongass. Under the 2008 Tongass plan, only 6.5 percent of commercial-grade old-growth acreage will be harvested between now and 2108. (Alaska Forest Association, U.S. Forest Service)
• Two hundred years from now, at least 83 percent of the current old-growth will still remain intact in the forest. (U.S. Forest Service)
• The young-growth in the Tongass is currently growing at a rate of over 500 million board feet annually. Unfortunately, it will be at least another 20 to 30 years before the young-growth is mature. (Alaska Forest Association)
• At 5.9 million acres, the Chugach National Forest in coastal Southcentral Alaska is the second largest forest in America. There is no commercial timber harvest occurring in the Chugach, nor is one provided for in the current management plan. (U.S. Forest Service)
• State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources
• State of Alaska Department of Labor
• U.S. Forest Service
• Alaska Forest Association