At 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest, pictured here near Sitka, is the country's largest. (Photo by Mike Hicks)

At 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest, pictured here near Sitka, is the country’s largest. (Photo by Mike Hicks)

What is the future of the Tongass National Forest? Will there be a timber industry, and what will it look like in five, ten, fifty years?

Those are the daunting questions before the Tongass Advisory Committee, which is meeting for the fifth time in Juneau this week (wk of 1-20-15). The committee is tasked with hammering out how the Forest Service should handle the Obama Administration’s “transition” away from old-growth logging and to a new focus on younger trees.

But for some people both on and off the committee, the most important questions are the ones the committee isn’t supposed to address.

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If you want to know how it feels to be on the Tongass Advisory Committee (TAC), the key word seems to be: risky.

“This is kind of the moderate group, and that was by design,” said committee member Wade Zammit, former president of the Sealaska Timber Corporation, speaking at the last meeting, in Sitka. “But there is tremendous pressure [on] every single person sitting at this table from influences in their constituency, about the direction they need to take this. And that — that’s risk. I mean, they are out on the limb on some of the things we’re about to tackle.”

Those things include how soon the Forest Service should taper off old growth timber sales, and how quickly it can ramp up sales of younger, second growth trees.

The Tongass committee is made up of over a dozen representatives from timber and conservation groups, local communities and Native organizations. And they are haunted, in part, by the history of past stakeholder groups who couldn’t hammer out a “made in the Tongass” solution.

But, said Zammit, “I think this group is different. I really feel strongly about this group and what it can accomplish.”

It’ll soon be clear whether that’s true. The committee has to come up with recommendations for the upcoming amendment to the Tongass Forest Plan by late February — though they’ve asked for more time.

That Forest Plan is a sort of zoning map for the entire Tongass — essentially, what can happen where.

And for now, everyone agrees on one thing: the current situation is untenable.

“We can’t go on like what’s been going on,” said committee member Eric Nichols of Ketchikan, owner of Alcan Forest Pro  ducts and Evergreen Timber. “The industry is devastated, a lot of these communities are devastated. Something has to change. ”

For the timber industry, lawsuits have made it impossible to get a sale out on any reliable timeline. For conservationists, there’s still too much old growth slated for logging. And for communities across Southeast, the long, slow decline of the timber industry has left a major economic hole.

Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, attended the last committee meeting in Sitka.

“I think everybody recognizes that we can’t just flip a switch and immediately begin to bring second growth online,” Bonnie said. “That’s because there’s not a whole lot of second growth out there, and because there’s some constraints on the Forest Service’s ability to do that…What we’d like to do is, over time, decrease the amount of old growth timber and increase the amount of second growth, and that’s the opportunity here. Now, the faster we do that from the standpoint of the conflicts we’ve seen, the better. But we also have to give the industry time to adapt.”

But for many of those watching the process, the biggest questions on the Tongass are outside the committee’s timber-only assignment.

Fishing and recreation groups, in particular, want more attention from the Forest Service. During public comments at the TAC’s last meeting, people said over and over again that the Forest Service — and the committee — need to move beyond a single-minded focus on timber.

Malena Marvin is the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

“We want to see the Forest Service redirect its budget to prioritize the industries that most Southeast Alaskans depend on,” Marvin said. “That’s everything related to salmon: commercial fishing, sport fishing, subsistence, personal use. And  visitor industries, tourism. Those are our economic power-houses, and so many people really feel that those should be the focus of Tongass management.”

A recent report from Rain Coast Data found that in 2013, the timber industry directly employed 325 people in Southeast Alaska. Together, the seafood and tourism industries employed nearly 11,000 people.

So, commenters asked, why is there a special committee to address timber industry needs, and not for fishing, or recreation?

Joel Hanson is the conservation director for The Boat Company, which runs small cruise ships in Southeast.

“I just wanted to let you know that we at the Boat Company feel both irrelevant to the process and threatened by it, and that’s not a good place for us to be,” Hanson told the committee. “So for those of you hoping the TAC would bring about some changes which might actually reduce the amount of controversy over timber sales on the Tongass, and result in fewer lawsuits: I suggest that you either don’t get your hopes up, or try like hell to find a way to reduce the threat that this transition process poses to recreational  interests.”

“I think we understand that criticism,” Bonnie said.  “Clearly, recreation, salmon are vitally important to the economy here.”

But, he said, the Tongass committee’s charter is deliberately narrow. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we need to move to a place around forest management where there’s more of a shared vision.”

In other words, he said, timber is the most controversial piece of the Tongass puzzle, and the Forest Service worries that giving the committee too much to do might undermine its ability to get anything done at all.

In its meetings so far, the committee has found common ground: there is agreement that the timber industry needs a steady supply of young growth into the future, and that even after the transition, some old growth should be available for niche industries.

But the big, thorny issue before the committee remains how quickly to scale back industrial old growth logging, and how much will get cut in the meantime. And those questions  may be more than enough for one committee to handle.

The Tongass Advisory Committee is meeting through Friday (1-23-15) in Juneau. You can find the meeting agenda here, and instructions on how to submit public comment here.