The Tongass National Forest issued its Record of Decision and Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Big Thorne Project last week. The decision allows for the harvest of 148.9 million board feet from approximately 6,186 acres of old-growth and 2,299 acres of young-growth near Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island within the Thorne Bay Ranger District.
According to Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole, the U.S. Forest Service believes the action could help stabilize the timber industry in Southeast Alaska as the Tongass makes a shift toward young growth timber harvests in the future.
“The Big Thorne decision is a critical step in the Tongass National Forest’s transition to young growth timber management,” Cole 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. A stable supply of wood helps the industry have confidence in their wood supply over the next several years. The Big Thorne project also allows the Forest Service time to prepare young growth projects for offer in the immediate future.”
A USFS projection states that Big Thorne could support more than 600 annualized jobs and provides opportunities for a variety of sale sizes, supplying opportunities for small local operators and larger operators in Southeast.
The Big Thorne decision allows for a 6- to10-year supply of timber, which could provide stability to the industry and sustain jobs while giving sawmills an opportunity to retool to process young growth timber and seek new markets. Meanwhile the Forest Service will invest its planning efforts in young growth timber projects.
The longer-term supply could also give the industry time to investigate the current demand for young growth wood products and cultivate markets with the greatest potential for future sales.
“The Forest recognizes the importance of this project and its effects on the people in the region, particularly to communities on Prince of Wales Island,” Cole said. “Timber plays an important role in the economy and culture of Southeast Alaska.”
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Forest Program Manager Bob Claus sees it a little differently.
“This sale is a continuation of business as usual,” Claus stated. “This practice stifles innovation and investment by looking only at industry’s current capability to determine what projects pencil out as ‘economic’ rather than looking to creative solutions that maximize jobs per board foot cut and the health of the forest ecosystem as the measures of their success.”
On the other side of the coin, both Senators from the Alaska delegation came out in support of the plan.
“I welcome today’s announcement that the Big Thorne timber sale is moving forward,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I wish the sale was somewhat larger and of a longer duration, with a greater assurance of a long-term supply of timber, but I appreciate that the sale is on the market. The vigorous defense and completion of the Big Thorne sale will be a much-needed sign for the people of Southeast Alaska that the Forest Service does wish to see the timber industry in the Tongass National Forest survive.”
“I’m pleased that Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole made a decision that will make a significant supply of timber available for the next 6-10 years.” said Senator Mark Begich. “A sale of this size will provide some sorely needed stability for the timber industry in Southeast Alaska. Providing a timber supply over a number of years should be of benefit to both medium and small saw mill operators, and help enhance economic diversification efforts for communities in Southeast Alaska.”
The project will be offered as a stewardship contract.
“(It) enables the agency to apply the anticipated timber receipts toward the completion of important landscape restoration and enhancement activities. These stewardship projects offer another opportunity for job creation in Southeast Alaska,” stated a USFS press release on the decision.
The Forest Service will be holding public meetings in Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove, and Ketchikan to discuss the overall project and provide an opportunity for local businesses and partners to consider how their earlier plans can be implemented now and in future contracts.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision can be found online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/tongass/. A 45-day appeal period is required after the release of the ROD, followed by up to 45 days for response to any appeals.