The federal government continues to pile up financial losses from timber sales in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, a consumer group said today.
Taxpayers for Common Sense said in a report that the Forest Service lost $16.1 million last fiscal year on Tongass timber sales, adding to years of shortfalls. A Trump administration proposal to open more areas of the forest — the biggest national forest in the country — to timber sales could help push losses to $190 million over the next five years, the group said.
Over four decades, the group said, timber sales from the Tongass have lost $1.7 billion.
“It actually costs taxpayers millions to ‘sell’ timber that we collectively own, which makes no sense,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, in a news release. “Rolling back the roadless rule will put the losses from a clearly broken timber sale program on steroids.”
The Tongass totals nearly 17 million acres and is one of the last intact temperate rainforests in the world. Environmental groups point to its value in sequestering carbon, especially in remaining old-growth areas, which have never been cut for timber.
But the forest is also important to Alaska’s shrinking wood products industry, still an influential part of the economy in the southeastern part of the state. Alaska’s political establishment is firmly behind lifting roadless-area restrictions that limit timber and other development on 9.5 million acres.
The administration has endorsed a total exemption from the national Roadless Area Conservation Rule for the Tongass, and a final decision could be announced in the coming weeks (E&E News PM, June 30).
Officials have said they’re not ruling out options that would exempt only part of the forest, even though the Department of Agriculture said a full exemption is its preferred approach and mirrors a request from state officials.
An exemption wouldn’t lead to any immediate timber projects, as each is subject to environmental and other reviews. But areas that have been off-limits would be deemed suitable for harvest and open to proposals.
Taxpayers for Common Sense releases the report annually, with updates. Among the new information this year, the group said the Forest Service in its roadless rule proposal didn’t account for the cost of road construction in areas that would be newly open for timber sales; the agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment today.
Proponents of Tongass development say groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense sometimes consider Forest Service costs that aren’t directly tied to timber sales as timber-related. And while timber doesn’t bring in much money to the Forest Service in Alaska, that’s partly because opponents challenge every project, they say.
In the context of Alaska’s vast forests, areas of the Tongass available for timber constitute a “minuscule portion,” an industry representative told E&E News.
“It’s a no-win situation for the Forest Service,” he said.
Timber from the national forest is used for several purposes, including exports of logs to China. That aspect of the Tongass timber program has sparked complaints from a conservative group called Citizens for the Republic, founded in 1977 by Ronald Reagan.
“If the Roadless Rule is lifted, the expanded logging in the Tongass will generate millions for China’s economy — but little for America’s economy,” the group said in a June news release. The organization wrote to President Trump in July, urging the administration to keep the roadless rule in place.
The Reagan-affiliated group is led by Craig Shirley, who has written biographies of the former president and is a director at the Reagan Ranch. The organization has said the roadless rule has sufficient flexibility to allow some development in the Tongass.
“A fundamental strength of the Rule is its flexibility for some new road connections between communities, personal-use tree cutting, management of wildfire risks, hard rock mining projects, off-road vehicle use, construction of utility lines and hydropower development,” the group said on its website.