Forest Service wants to hear community priorities for Tongass management

 

Ola Richards/ Petersburg Pilot

Portage Mountain in Tongass National Forest

The USDA Forest Service is starting the process of revising the Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan, which will shape local and regional management for years to come. Over the past 27 years since the Forest Plan was developed, the land and lifestyle in Southeast Alaska has changed significantly. As a result, the Forest Service is seeking input from the public to ensure that the revised plan reflects the evolving needs and concerns of the community.

The current Forest Plan was developed more than 25 years ago, and "a lot has changed in Southeast Alaska in that time..." USDA Plan Revision Coordinator Erin Mathews told the Pilot. "The economy, resource use and demand, you know, increased demand for recreation, conservation..."

She said this mandatory revision will bring the Forest Plan up to date and involve the best available science, including Indigenous ecological knowledge for the Tongass.

The initial assessment will be based on information gathered during current community engagement opportunities.

Collecting information during this first "assessment" stage of the process looks at current trends and conditions to know how to move forward with the plan to address them effectively.

Mathews said all of this information "will make that plan a valuable tool as we move forward," noting the plan will be around for "the next potentially 15 years."

"Right now, we're in the active process of putting that assessment together," said Mathews. "It's better to get the information now so we can be headed in the right direction, versus having to change course later."

Mathews said the revision team is trying to outline the best available science and key topics for the assessment by this summer, "So that's why it's timely to get those in now, so we're focused on the correct thing."

There are community engagement opportunities throughout the multi-year revision process and information received later on will still be accepted.

USFS Petersburg District Ranger Ray Born says this revision is flipping the process on its head. Typically, opportunity for public comment is given in reaction to a plan; this time, however, the Forest Service is asking what the public wants them to plan for at the beginning of the process.

"Our objective is to keep people informed, get the input from them, and use that as how to develop the next Forest Plan," said Born. "We're doing it differently this cycle. We're reaching out to the community to say what do you value? What's important to you? What are the resources of interest ... to pay attention to?"

This unique opportunity for the public to proactively contribute to the Tongass Forest Plan revision helps to ensure all the values of a given community are incorporated successfully.

Submitting comments as soon as possible is "more timely" so the revision team has the information it needs as they develop the draft assessment, which is slated to come out at the beginning of next year.

"It's a really big process ... but that's why we want to listen to people and understand what the values are, what they want," said Born. "People that typically haven't engaged with us for whatever reason, we want to hear those minority voices, too ... people, smaller groups that, you know, have valuable input ... we have to hear it before we can even think about it."

"To really make this a valuable Forest Plan, we need that input from these communities," Mathews emphasized.

Minority priorities "are even more important [to] speak up and share ... because if we're just hearing one message, that's going to be the message that we believe [speaks for] those communities..."

"That's why we went to so many different locations [for community workshops], because we were really trying to make sure that we do hear from all the different viewpoints and perspectives, and get those incorporated," said Mathews.

Recent community workshops were held to help guide the assessment by learning more about what is happening in and around Tongass communities.

YaKunda.ein Avery Herrman-Sakamoto attended the recent workshop in Petersburg. She felt her cultural perspective and priority for having a holistic relationship with the land was listened to, and said it was "fun to have that conversation in that space ... being open and able to talk about my culture and ... provoking some kind of different thoughtfulness of cultural awareness..."

While there were only a handful of attendees present, "Everyone who showed up to that meeting was there for a reason," she said. "They care, they want to do something off the land, and they want to be involved and they want to be heard. And that's huge. That is community right there. That is leaning on each other, that is supporting each other to come to a better result. And that's awesome."

Herrman-Sakamoto told the Pilot she chose to contribute her voice to the process, thinking about environmental changes, future relatives and the generations to come.

She was glad to see the Forest Service inquire about how indigenous and local knowledge could be used in future management of the forest.

"They had a few different questions about cultural values and how to kind of apply them in the perspective shift approach to this ... and that was something I was really excited about, to see that representation."

"Historically, we've [the USFS] not listened to Alaska Natives," Born told the Pilot. "We're trying to change that ... the Forest Service overall is trying to do that..."

Herrman-Sakamoto encourages people to participate in the current community engagement opportunities and contribute their voice to the conversation.

"You're valid for how you're viewing something, and it's always good just to show up and to talk about it," she said.

"We all enjoy the land in some way and we all cherish it in some way. And being able to come together and really recognize that and have that base understanding with each other is awesome, because at the core ... you can look at someone and they could be completely opposite of you ... in any issue ... but recognizing that you both are there for a reason because you care and you're both human and you cherish what the issue is in some way, you can find common ground."

Petersburg resident Jack Slaght also attended the community workshop for the Forest Plan revision.

"I think my voice was listened to ... I really do," he told the Pilot.

Slaght harvests firewood from the forest on Mitkof Island and would like to see a balance that supports small mill operation efficiency, road maintenance improvements, mature timber harvest and maximizing resource utilization prioritized in the next plan.

"Our voices matter. And I have rethought my stance that I had [25] years ago where I just kind of gave up and I felt like voices like mine [advocating for utilizing mature timber in the Tongass] were being drowned out," said Slaght. "To me, it's important to have a voice even if you believe that there's a miniscule chance that your voice will really be heard, and it will actually be effective or acted upon ... It's a good thing to still try to have a voice. Plus ... the one constant in this life we're in, is change ... We don't know what the future holds exactly. But I know that political tides change, and people's views of what should and should not be done can change as new evidence comes, you know, we learn as we go."

The Forest Service is mandated to consider all of the multiple uses, from timber to recreation - the latter being of particular interest in this revision plan due to an increase in recreational use in the Tongass National Forest.

"Policy should be responsive to the changes in the areas that they're trying to manage ... it's important to have opportunities to revise these things," Sitka Conservation Society Tongass Community Organizer Heather Bauscher told the Pilot. "I think there is maybe a little bit of a public comment fatigue ... but while I understand frustration with process, I also appreciate the opportunity that we have to influence how this is created and ... I think the future of the region is really dependent upon protecting a lot of these uses that are important to rural communities."

"I think one of the things we're really lucky for, living in an area that is the Tongass National Forest and under Forest Service management, is that multiple uses are protected. But everything is about balance and economy of scale, right. So how can we try to be proactive ... and look down the road and see what's coming and weigh in on how we can creatively prioritize what we need to, to make sure that our communities are sustainable and continue to thrive..." Bauscher added.

According to the USFS, the dynamics of the Tongass National Forest have changed over the last 20 years, shifting from primarily producing timber to an increase in recreational use.

"We're mandated to revise the Forest Plan. But I think the overall goal is to do a more holistic management of the forest - to do a better job to balance again, you know, caring for land and serving the people," said Born.

"As public lands, we're doing our job correctly, if we're constantly engaging with the public ... public input is critical," said Mathews. "We need to know if there's changes needed to the current management or if there's protection or restoration needed in certain areas that we're not already aware of, or ... trends that we need to be made aware of."

"As any plan ... you bring all these various opinions together and talk through, what works for you, what doesn't work for you ... and where can we meet and work together," said Born. "What's the ten percent we can agree on, and then build from there..."

Community members can still contribute to the conversation and tell the team what values should be prioritized in the revised Forest Plan by filling out an online feedback form (www.spruceroot.org/tongassrevision) or emailing comments, questions, or informative documents to the team at tongassplanrevision@usda.gov.

The Sitka Conservation Society created an online tool that helps generate a written letter to send to the team within a few minutes, which can be found at this link: bit.ly/tongassforestplan

"A lot of people have a hard time expressing their thoughts in writing ... and I think that can be a factor [in why people don't participate]," said Slaght. Learning about the letter generation tool, he said "that might encourage a few to come out of the woodwork..."

People can also visit the Forest Service building downtown to give their input.

Up to date information on the revision and upcoming engagement opportunities can be found on the Forest Service's Tongass Plan Revision website.­­

 

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