Several dozen House Democrats and environmental groups yesterday aired concerns about a Forest Service plan to allow the harvest of old-growth trees in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Peter DeFazio of Oregon sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opposing the Forest Service's decision in July to allow more than 6,000 acres of old-growth logging in the 17-million-acre forest.
The sale drew support from Alaska's congressional delegation but was immediately panned by a handful of environmental groups (Greenwire, July 2). That same week, Vilsack issued a memo saying that within 15 years, the "vast majority" of timber harvested on the 17-million-acre forest, the nation's largest, will be young growth (Greenwire, July 5).
"We supported your 2010 announcement to start 'transitioning quickly away from timber harvesting in roadless areas and old growth forests,' and appreciate your recent secretarial memorandum that affirms those goals," said the letter yesterday signed by 74 Democrats. "However, we were surprised and disappointed by your subsequent announcement of the five-year timber sale program for the Tongass National Forest."
The five-year plan includes the 150-million-board-feet Big Thorne sale, which the lawmakers warned would destroy trees as old as 800 years and as large as 12 feet in diameter and is inconsistent with the agency's planned transition away from old growth.
A separate letter was sent to Vilsack by a coalition of environmental groups criticizing the agency's continued reliance on old-growth logging, arguing that it could hasten the demise of at-risk wolf and goshawk species and divert resources from other job-creating forest uses, including tourism and fishing.
"It's clear that there is broad support both in Congress and across the country for a transition away from old-growth logging in the Tongass," said a statement by Matt Kirby of the Sierra Club, which signed the letter along with the Alaska Wilderness League, National Audubon Society and Center for Biological Diversity, among others. "The Forest Service needs to match its actions to its transition plan to ensure a healthy future for the forest and the local economy."
The Big Thorne project is expected to generate roughly 650 jobs in logging, sawmilling, transportation and supporting businesses. It will also offer 2,299 acres of young-growth timber.
In July, forest Supervisor Forrest Cole defended the sale, saying that most second-growth trees are less than 60 years old and, by law, cannot be cut until their growth peaks. He added that the 6,186 acres of old growth to be harvested represents a "pretty minor" portion of the nearly 5 million acres of productive old growth in the forest.
In addition, road construction was reduced and access during wolf trapping season was restricted in the final plan, he said.
"By providing a stable supply of timber to the industry now, we are giving the Forest Service and the industry the breathing space needed to prepare for the transition to young-growth timber," Cole said.
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