Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan, Alaska. Credit: Judy Malley
In their heyday, the Alaska pulp mills employed hundreds of people and, for many years, operated with little notice. In the late 1960s, with the rise of the environmental movement and the subsequent passage of federal clean water and air laws, attitudes toward the pulp mills sharply changed. Heated public debate and environmental lawsuits ensued. In 1990, Congress finally stepped in and passed the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which scaled back logging in favor of fish and wildlife protection. The law ushered in a new era of forest management in Tongass.
Now, more than two decades later, change continues to define this region of jagged fjords and mist-shrouded islands. One of the bigger developments occurred in May 2010, when the Forest Service pledged to move beyond old-growth logging and start managing Tongass for second-growth timber, begin restoring watersheds impacted by logging and support job creation in fishing, renewable energy, mariculture and tourism.
Although some said the policy shift was overdue and simply reflected realities on the ground, the announcement was significant for an agency whose primary focus for decades had been managing Tongass for industrial-scale, old-growth timber harvesting.
The order came from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who directed the Forest Service to develop a Tongass “Transition Framework,” a strategy that would refocus the agency’s priorities and help grow the regional economy.
Since making the announcement, the Forest Service has organized some 30 job-creating initiatives in collaboration with business, government, tribal and non-profit organizations. It’s called the “cluster initiative,” a process that’s been infused with $30 million from Vilsack’s department. Since 2009, the agency has also invested more than $153 million in infrastructure, education and training, research, and business loans and grants to communities experiencing job declines in the timber industry, according to the Forest Service.
Depending on one’s vantage point, the “transition,” as it’s known locally, either means promising times or frustrating reminders that Tongass’ timber industry is unlikely to ever recover its former past.
Fishermen and tourism operators tend to take a more positive view. Many who felt the Forest Service long relegated their priorities to the back burner are hopeful that fish and the environment will finally get more attention.
“Like any change, it takes time to gain momentum. Of course, I would like to see it happen faster. I think people are still getting used to the idea of making the transition,” says Sheila Peterson, a Juneau commercial fisherman who owns Taku River Reds, a direct-market seafood business that sells wild sockeye and silver salmon to high-end restaurants and markets in the lower 48 states.