Agriculture Department urged to stop funding logging roads in Tongass

Conservation coalition says these roads have cost taxpayers over $600M

Eleven conservation and climate entities are asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to prohibit use of federal funds for planning, design, construction and maintenance of logging roads in Tongass National Forest.

Among their concerns are the potential adverse impact of logging on tourism and salmon habitat.

The coalition told Vilsack in their letter of Monday, April 19, that the timber industry in Tongass National Forest has for decades benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies in the timber harvesting business.

“If all road building, maintenance and timber sale costs in the Tongass are taken into account, subsidies for logging Tongass timber have cost taxpayers approximately $600 million over the last 20 years, largely due to the cost of designing, building and maintaining new logging roads,” the letter said.

Tessa Axelson, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association in Ketchikan, said that AFA does not support the request of the conservation and climate entities. AFA supports the continuation of federal resources for the design, construction and maintenance of these logging roads in the Tongass, she said.

“We see the investment of federal funds in this forest infrastructure as critical to the forest product industry,” Axelson said. “The operators who are working in the Tongass are really focused on continuing our operations and having a working forest that allows for jobs in communities that have access to these sites.”

The conservation and climate action coalition noted that in recent years the tourism and commercial fishing industries that depend on the health of the nation’s largest national forest have generated $1 billion apiece in annual economic benefit.

The U.S. Forest Service meanwhile loses approximately $600 for every 1,000 board feet of timber sold from the Tongass, and current plans call for the Forest Service to offer timber sales of nearly 300 million board feet over the next five years, the coalition said. Considering historic averages these planned sales would cost taxpayers over $180 million, with costs from maintenance and upkeep accruing years into the future, they said.

Katie Riley, policy director for the Sitka Conservation Society, cited as an example of wasted taxpayer money Forest Service efforts to promote the North Kuiu old growth timber sale in 2016 and 2018.

“They spent over $4.5 million preparing for it over $3 million for the road alone,” said Riley, one of the signatories of the letter. “That money got completely wasted preparing for a timber sale that nobody wanted.”

Riley said she hopes that the Department of Agriculture will side with the economy of Southeast Alaska, seeing the value of salmon produced in the Tongass National Forest, the value of keeping the land intact and wild and the value of the forest as a carbon sink. The Tongass stores 8% of the carbon of all forests in the Lower 48 combined, according to a report compiled by the Forest Service, storing over 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and sequestering an additional 10 million metric tons each year, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. The coalition also cites Forest Service research that found that for each acre of old growth forest harvested, 70 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are released.

The letter was signed by representatives for Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environment America, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club of British Columbia, Sitka Conservation Society, The Wilderness Society, Women’s Earth, and Climate Action Network.

Halting use of taxpayer funds for logging roads would protect Southeast Alaska’s vibrant outdoor economy, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation interests, and subsistence users of forest resources, and put the Forest Service on a more sustainable path for the future, the group said.