The Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report this week evaluating the U.S. Forest Service’s management of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
According to the budget numbers included in the report, the Tongass’ timber program cost taxpayers $11.4 million annually between 2005 and 2014 – a total of $114 million. TCS’ analysis of the Forest Service’s timber expenditures in the Tongass show that from 2008 through 2013, the USFS spent $139.1 million on timber sales (including road construction, which is mostly for logging roads) in the Tongass and received $8.6 million in proceeds from these sales, an average cost of $21.7 million annually, and a net loss of $130.5 million.
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The new GAO report focused on steps the Forest Service has taken to achieve its goal of transitioning timber harvest in the Tongass from old-growth timber (trees more than 150 years old) to all young-growth timber (trees that have regrown after the harvest of old growth) within the next 10-15 years.
While input from Forest Service officials, timber industry representatives, and other local stakeholders were included in the report, none of the groups interviewed provided fiscal analysis of the Forest Service’s management of timber in the Tongass. No analysis was provided of the millions of dollars that taxpayers lose every year due to the Forest Service’s costs to administer its timber program in the Tongass. The only mention given to this issue by GAO stated that:
“The Forest Service expends funds to prepare, manage, and oversee timber sales and to conduct required environmental analyses. It also receives revenues for the timber it sells. The Forest Service reported an average of $12.5 million annually in timber-related expenditures for the Tongass from fiscal years 2005 to 2014. During that period, it reported receiving an average of $1.1 million in revenues associated with timber harvested from the Tongass.”
GAO’s report also references the Forest Service’s plan to increase levels of timber harvest to 46 million board feet annually. As we noted when the Forest Service released its draft transition plan in December 2015, taxpayers stand to lose $367.5 million over the next 15 years as a result of this plan if the Tongass timber program continues to lose money at the same rate.
It’s clear that current timber management practices in the Tongass are too costly for taxpayers. The Forest service must stop selling timber at a loss of millions of dollars annually and should seek to provide a fair return to taxpayers for this public resource.