The Tongass Forest Plan:
Not Worth the Paper It's Printed On

The Forest Service is continuing its slide into a highly politicized agency as Chief Mike Dombeck recently transferred several regional foresters around the agency. Such mass transfers are unprecedented in the agency's history.

Meanwhile, Dombeck's fiddling with the people at the top seems to have little effect on on-the-ground management. A case in point is the Tongass National Forest, which has been shaken by the closure of two large pulp mills that have been the buyers of most of its timber. Nevertheless, the forest bulldoggedly plans to sell huge volumes of timber for which there is little market.

After spending ten years and more than $15 million, the Tongass has finally produced a comprehensive forest plan as required by the two-decade old National Forest Management Act. Though a complete copy of the plan and accompanying environmental impact statement fill seven volumes weighing close to 20 pounds, it is next to worthless and already obsolete.

Although the Forest Service estimates that Tongass Forest recreation is worth ten times as much as its timber, the plan revolves entirely around timber. For example, the projected budgets for recreation, wildlife, watershed, and every other resource except timber are exactly the same for every one of the nine alternatives considered in the plan.

As a timber plan, the Tongass is pretty vacuous as well. The most recent timber inventory for the Tongass is around fifteen years old, and it was so badly done that an entire appendix to the plan is devoted to fretting about how to fix it. The inventory found, for example, that stands classified as "high-volume old-growth" timber have less wood in them than stands classed as "medium-volume old growth," suggesting that the timber classification was completely wrong.

Recalling the forest planner's motto of "garbage in, gospel out," the Forest Service decided to use the data anyway. It never seems to have occurred to planners that they could have used some of the millions spent on an elaborate geographic information system to go out and actually collect reliable data to put into the system.

Meanwhile, the Tongass is well known as the forest that sells trees for the price of a Big Mac. This is partly due to sweetheart, long-term contracts that the Forest Service signed with the pulp mills many years ago. Since the closure of those mills, the Tongass has actually been getting some respectable prices for its timber--on the order of $100 to $150 per thousand board feet. Yet high road and administrative costs mean that the forest still loses $25 to $30 million per year on its timber program.

Planners got around that problem with the simple technique of assuming that timber would sell for $250 per thousand board feet. They also let their FORPLAN computer model high-grade the forest, cutting off all of the valuable timber in the first forty years. After that time, stumpage values dip into the negative numbers, but planners never happened to mention that in the thousands of pages of documents they distributed to the public.

Since the pulp mill closures, Forest Service research economists David Brooks and Richard Haynes--under contract to the Tongass to estimate timber prices and timber demand--concluded that the demand for Tongass timber at prices of around $100 per thousand board feet would only be about 110 million board feet per year. The Tongass simply ignored them and decided on a plan that would sell 267 million board feet a year. Of course, at that volume the forest cannot possibly get $250 per thousand, and may not get $100 per thousand.

Environmentalists may hope that the Clinton administration will overturn the plan. But this is the problem with a politicized Forest Service: Political managers at the top simply can't keep track of what is happening on all 120 or so forests--even such high-profile forests as the Tongass. If they let a crummy plan like this go through, they are hardly likely to monitor the forest on a day-to-day or even year-to-year basis.

In accepting politicization of agency leaders, environmentalists have created an opportunity for future, less environmentally friendly administrations to do a lot of damage in the future without gaining much benefit today. Time will tell what happens to the Tongass, but whatever was good about the Forest Service in the past is pretty much gone forever.

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