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Alaskans Argue Over Favored Status of Tongass Forest Timber Industry

October 25, 1987|SUE CROSS | Associated Press

PETERSBURG, Alaska — Mayor Tom Gustafson sums up the effect of logging the Tongass National Forest with a quick trip down the main drag.

If it weren't for the $63 million the federal government is spending this year to underwrite unprofitable logging in the Tongass, Gustafson says, this town in the center of the country's largest national forest wouldn't be nearly so bustling.

"When I'm talking about the Tongass, I'm talking about economics alone," he says, noting that the town of 3,000 people enjoys 60 jobs in the Forest Service, 50 in small logging concerns. When Congress debates the fate of the Tongass, he says, it's debating the fortunes of Petersburg.

Sig Mathisen, a third-generation Petersburg fisherman and president of the local vessel owners association, also talks about the forest in terms of livelihood.

But to Mathisen, the timber subsidies benefit one industry at the expense of others that are making money on their own. Besides, he envisions streams muddied by logging and salmon kills.

Fish or Timber

"With a 100% deficit on timber sales, it doesn't make any sense to me to sacrifice the fisheries for timber harvest," he says.

Disagreement over the Tongass is nothing new here, but the debate is heating up as Congress considers putting a lid on a now limitless, guaranteed subsidy the Forest Service receives to manage the forest's 17 million acres, an area about the size of Indiana.

The forest covers an archipelago of more than 1,000 named islands, scores of smaller ones, and a thin slice of Alaska's mainland panhandle. Under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Congress divided it into wilderness, timbering and multiple-use lands.

That is when the unhappiness began, says regional forester Mike Barton.

Most of the forest is barren rock, thinly vegetated bog-like muskeg, glaciers and snow. Human use is limited largely to taking in the scenery.

The competition is over 9.4 million acres of rain forest, the prime areas for both timber and Tongass wildlife, including deer, grizzly and black bear and bald eagles. The thickest forests also border many of the prime salmon spawning streams.

Conservationists say it's wrong to risk one of the few temperate rain forests remaining in the northern hemisphere, for the sake of a few thousand jobs and timber that's available in places that aren't so ecologically valuable.

Scant Return

They say it's even worse that the federal government is spending millions to cut the forest, with a return of just pennies on the dollar.

Fishermen like Mathisen don't object to logging, but say the Forest Service is not protecting salmon streams as it should.

Tourism industry officials say their booming business is being slighted in Forest Service budgets because of a pro-timber bias.

Loggers say the Forest Service pays so much attention to false claims by conservationists and wildlife experts that the agency has failed to meet its legal obligation to provide timber.

Congress is to address the complaints in as-yet-unscheduled hearings this fall.

Most congressional debate so far has centered on the Tongass budget. The Tongass Timber Supply Fund was set up in 1980 to offset the effect of designating 5.4 million acres of wilderness, some of it carved out of potential timber lands. The fund is guaranteed $40 million a year "or as much as the secretary of agriculture finds is necessary," outside of the normal appropriation process.

The House, at the urging of environmentalist Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), has moved to cap Tongass spending at $40 million.

The Senate has talked about taking away the guaranteed subsidy and making the Forest Service seek annual Tongass appropriations.

Environmentalists also are pushing for a buyout of the Forest Service's two long-term timber sales contracts and changes in the basic land classifications.

The state and several of the larger Tongass communities want to preserve the status quo. The subsidy is credited with creating 3,093 jobs in a state shaken by oil market ups and downs.

Still, many people, including Gov. Steve Cowper, say more oversight of Forest Service spending might be prudent.

Forester Barton says the money's wisely spent.

"I'm not sure it's really a criticism of the Forest Service or a criticism of the land issues," he says. "If we build a road, we build it right. But a lot of people don't want us to build the road to begin with."

The Forest Service spends most of its Tongass money to make 450 million board feet of timber--about 17,000 acres' worth--available for cutting each year. Its annual budget has been $65-70 million since 1983; its return was only $2.2 million last year.

Cyclical Market

Many timber experts say the cyclical market is recovering. As it does, Barton says, profits will soar.

Almost all its timber goes to two multinational companies operating under 50-year contracts drawn up in the 1950s as make-work projects to help populate Southeast Alaska.

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