March 1, 2012 | Vol. 39, No 9

Audubon says Sealaska targeting Tongass trees

ANCHORAGE (AP) — More than 12,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest's oldest and largest trees are being targeted for logging under a bill that would place wide swathes of forest lands in private hands, an Audubon report says.

“These are the ancient giant tree stands,” said Audubon Alaska policy director Eric Myers. “These are effectively the redwoods of the Tongass.”

Audubon Alaska used U.S. Forest Service data to look at the potential impact of a bill pending in Congress that would allow Sealaska Corp. to pick choice lands in the nation's largest national forest for logging and other uses to benefit its 20,000 shareholders.

The report says, “If enacted, the Sealaska legislation would erode more than 30 years of effort by foresters, conservationists, biologists and other scientists to conserve these remaining rare stands, not only for their value to wildlife and human users in Alaska, but as a resource valued by citizens nationwide.”

Sealaska is one of 13 Native regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of lands they historically used or occupied. The Native corporations were provided with $962.5 million and given the right to select 44 million acres.

Sealaska is still owed tens of thousands of acres. The bill pending in Congress would convey that remaining acreage. It is currently stalled in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

No one argues that Sealaska is entitled to the acreage. The dispute is over a feature of the bill allowing Sealaska to pick outside designated areas, normally referred to as “boxes.”

The Audubon report says the bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would give the Native corporation “unprecedented ability” to pick and choose tracts of public lands throughout the 16.8 million-acre temperate rain forest in Southeast Alaska.

It says Sealaska is after a substantial portion of the Tongass' largest, oldest and best trees. After more than a hundred years of logging, the tree stands are “exceedingly rare,” comprising just half of 1 percent of the Tongass, the report says.

Under the House bill, Sealaska would get 319 stands or 12,141 acres of the Tongass' biggest trees, Audubon says. The Senate bill identifies 276 stands or 13,550 acres.

That equates to a loss of nearly 14 percent to more than 16 percent of the forest's biggest trees remaining on 81,770 acres, Audubon says.

Sealaska has done a very good job of identifying where the big tree stands remain in the Tongass, Myers said.

“We really didn't know what we would find when we undertook this mapping analysis and the results were shocking,” he said. “They are looking to highgrade the very largest, most economically valuable tree stands.”

Highgrading is the practice of disproportionate cutting of the highest-volume tree stands by targeting the forest's biggest trees. These high-volume tree stands in the Tongass were targeted for logging for more than 100 years because they can contain 50,000 board feet or more per acre.

The report says the largest trees in the Tongass are between 300 and 800 years old and kept nearly a dozen sawmills busy in the late 1880s. By the 1950s, more than half of the big trees were gone, the report says. When 50-year contracts that supplied wood to pulp mills were canceled in the 1990s, highgrading was largely discontinued, Audubon says.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris denied that the bill would authorize a return to Tongass highgrading. He also questioned some of the report's figures and findings, while pointing out that Sealaska's selections are in areas designated for commercial harvest.

Sealaska has worked hard with various Tongass stakeholders in the selection process, Harris said.

“We are perplexed when we get those conclusions,” he said, of the report.

Harris said the corporation is seeking about 72,000 acres. Of those, about 28,000 acres are in old-growth areas of the Tongass and the remaining acres are either a mixture of old-growth and second-growth, or entirely second-growth in areas previously logged.

If forced to pick inside the boxes, all of Sealaska's selections could be made in old-growth areas, Harris said. But, he said, the corporation is seeking to pick outside the boxes to stay away from environmentally important and sensitive areas.

Sealaska previously made its land selections inside the boxes but asked that those lands not be conveyed in order to see what happened with the bill, the report says. A comparison of those picks inside the boxes and what the corporation wants now shows 12 times more acres of very large old-growth trees outside the boxes, Audubon says.

Myers said some of the tracts that Sealaska wants have been identified as having the highest biological value, being abundant in deer, salmon, black bear and other animals.

Studies have shown that in harsh winters, Sitka black-tailed deer move into the big tree stands to escape deep snow. Insects and spiders also live in the bark of big, old trees and provide important habitat for certain birds, he said.

“It is really quite stunning the way they have targeted these very large tree stands,” Myers said.

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