The Sitka Conservation Society recently printed a glossy brochure selling the virtues of second-growth Tongass timber for projects from furniture to housing.
The only problem is: There’s no way – yet – to economically harvest and process second growth.
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SCS director Andrew Thoms is the first to admit that an industry based on second growth may be decades away, but he doesn’t think it’s too early for wood users to consider local products.
“As we think long-term about where we get our resources, how local we live, the cost of shipping things, and our overall carbon footprint, we need to start looking more locally about where we get our resources. And eventually we’re going to have to build the economy and the networks where we’re able to buy wood that comes from the region rather than from across the continent.”
The brochure that SCS has produced is called Alaskan Grown: A Guide to Tongass Young Growth Timber and its Uses. It features a pair of recreational log cabins built by the Forest Service in Sitka and Wrangell, a private residence in Gustavus, and a recent project in the Sitka High School woodshop using red alder to build night stands.
None of the wood for these projects was purchased through conventional means. But Thoms says there are networks of small-scale mills, from Hoonah, to Wrangell, to Prince of Wales, that can a reasonable alternative for people willing to try something that – for now – remains unconventional.
“We’ve heard anectdotally from some of the builders in town that once they have figured out a way to get a supply of local wood, the prices are cheaper, or comparable to, buying all their wood from someplace else.”
“Alaska young growth is no different than any other tree that grows in North America,” says Allen Brackley, director of the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Sitka.
“Be it lumber, or pulp and paper, or particle board, plywood, or engineered products. You can make them out of Alaska young growth.”
Brackley says the one limitation on young growth is that it cannot produce sawn, clear boards. That is a feature of old growth, and why it remains so valuable.
Brackley does not view the turn to young growth in the Tongass as especially innovative. Young growth is the name of the game in much of the nation’s timber industry.
“You go down to Washington and Oregon, they’ve almost totally converted to a young growth economy. Some of the industrial forest lands have made the transition to almost a plantation – a highly-managed stand – situation.”
Roughly a million acres of Southeast Alaska was clearcut, beginning with hand-logging early in the 20th Century, to the end of the pulp mill era around 1990, and is now in second-growth. But the rate of re-growth, despite Southeast’s uniform appearance from the air, is really variable. Brackley says a lot of people are working on projecting sustainable yields through time in the Tongass. But time, in this forest, works on a different scale. Brackley thinks we’re thirty- to forty years out from having enough young growth to sustain major industry again.
“Right now there is no possibility that you could support anything other than a very, very small industry.”
Brackley says that projection could change.
The SCS brochure lays these facts on the line, but Andrew Thoms is undeterred. He says the Sitka Conservation Society just wanted to show agencies and potential users what is possible with young growth, and to point the way to a more sustainable economic future for Southeast communities. He hopes many previously clearcut areas will be set aside, and not logged again for young growth. And some wood, like yellow cedar, is just too slow-growing to be a practical young growth product.
Thoms is just as deliberate in spreading the word about young growth. You probably won’t find a printed copy, except at the SCS office.
“We wanted to use as little wood as possible, and reduce our amount of paper. I think people can read this real well on the internet.”