Alaska Forest Facts

Alaska's Boreal Forest

The forests found in Alaska’s interior are known as Boreal Forests. These forests extend from the Kenai Peninsula to the Tanana Valley near Fairbanks, and as far north as the foothills of the Brooks Range. They stretch from the Porcupine River near the Canadian border and west down the Kuskokwim River valley. Species with commercial value include white spruce, quaking aspen, and paper birch. Other species include black spruce, balsam poplar, and larch.

These forests are the product of extreme climatic factors. Temperatures can vary as much as 160ºF from summer to winter. Summer days are long and daylight hours in the winter months are few. Slow, short growing periods cause the trees to have tight growth rings, making the wood prized for strength and delicate beauty. Within the boreal forest, conditions vary considerably. North of the Alaska Range, precipitation rarely exceeds 20 inches per year, so moisture from snow melt nurtures the forests. Heavier snowfall and more rain in Southcentral causes different growth and maturity rates in the trees of that region.

The forest industry in the Interior has been limited to small mills and cottage industries. There is increased interest in these resources, however, the state legislature recently enacted laws that may encourage industry growth over the next decade.

Wildlife and Stream Protection in Alaska's Forests

A ‘perfect’ forest for all wildlife cannot exist. Different species require different habitats. Harvesting and other management activities add to this diversity. Often, wildlife increases and flourishes after harvesting. As the forest is managed, these increased populations can be maintained. And where there is game, there are predators. Bear, wolf and human hunters, find excellent herds of deer, moose and other browsing species.

The Alaska Forest Resources and Practices Act guarantees that streams and rivers are protected by strict regulations and best management practices. Buffer strips along stream banks are now required for all commercial harvest in Alaska on federal, state and private land.

Experts used to think debris in streams would be harmful to fish. Now we know that this debris is actually necessary to create shade pools and rearing habitat where fish can hide, rest and spawn. The fishing industry in Alaska has experienced record runs in the last decade.

*There are no endangered or threatened animal species in Alaska’s forests!

Alaska's Forest Products Industry

After 150 years of boom and bust, the Alaska Territory looked for a year-round economy to bring families to the “Last Frontier.”  With the signing of the original Tongass Act in 1947, and construction of the first pulp mill in Ketchikan in 1954, that long sought-after stability was finally achieved.

Today, Alaska’s forest products industry provides hundreds of jobs and contributes millions of dollars to Alaska’s economy.  Furthermore, each direct timber job creates at least three indirect jobs for doctors, retailers, teachers, and more.

In Alaska, there are two distinct forest types.  The coastal rainforest begins in southern southeast Alaska, and extends through Prince William Sound, and down the Kenai Peninsula to Afognak and Kodiak Islands.  The two largest national forests in the United States are in this region.  The boreal forest covers much of interior and southcentral Alaska.

The timber regions are managed by four landholders – the federal government, 51%; state, university and local governments, 25%; Native corporations, 24%; and other private landowners, 0.4%.  Most of the commercial timber harvest is in the coastal zone, primarily on federal and Native corporation land.

Trees, A Renewable Resource

Wood is renewable, biodegradable and recyclable. There is no other resource that can replace wood in an environmentally sound or economically feasible way.

Every year, each American consumes 630 pounds of  paper and lumber, equal to a 100 foot tall tree.  Hundreds of everyday items have their roots in Alaska’s forests.   Paper and lumber are easily recognized, but other products such as cellophane, rayon and fillers for everything from toothpaste to ice cream to chewing gum may not be.   These, too, are products of our forests.

Today, forest growth in the United States exceeds harvest by 37%.  More than 730 million acres of forest cover the U.S. – that equals two-thirds of the forested area present when Columbus landed in America.  There is now 28% more standing timber volume in the U.S. than in 1952.

In Alaska, there are 129 million forested acres across the state.  Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedar are the dominant species in Southeast and Southcentral, while white spruce, black cottonwood, aspen, and paper birch are found in the Interior forests.

The Largest National Forest

With 16.8 million acres, The Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States.  Although established in 1907, only 400,000 acres have been harvested to date.  That’s only 4% of  the 9.5 million forested acres on the Tongass in almost 90 years.

The primary species of trees in the Tongass are Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Alaska (yellow) cedar.  These trees are prized for their durability, usefulness and beauty.

The 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan schedules 176,000 acres for timber harvest over the next 100 years.

Natural regeneration is so abundant in this area, that many new trees quickly replace the harvested forests.  Many areas require thinning for healthy regrowth after the first 15 years and after about 50 years, the second growth area will have more timber volume than the original old growth acreage.

The 2nd Largest National Forest

The Chugach National Forest (pronounced Chew’gatch) is 5.9 million acres in south central Alaska, south and east of Anchorage, encompassing the Prince William Sound area and much of the Kenai Peninsula.  Roughly the size of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, the Chugach is the second largest national forest in the United States, next to the Tongass in Southeast Alaska.

Shaped by glacial ice, earthquakes and volcanoes, most of the Chugach is managed as fish and wildlife habitat.  Only about 6% of the land base is considered productive forest land, so harvests are relatively small compared to other national forests. The primary tree species are Sitka and white spruce.  Cottonwood, hemlock, black spruce and Lutz spruce also occur.

Established in 1907, the timber resources are only just beginning to be developed for commercial use.  Unfortunately, spruce bark beetle infestations have killed much of the trees on the Chugach in recent years. The entire Chugach, and much of the Kenai region, has been affected by this pest.

Proper Silviculture

Forestry is a scientific discipline which prepares professional foresters to manage Alaska’s forests. Management includes leaving wildlife habitat areas along streams and shore lines. Logging is planned with care to protect sensitive areas.  Helicopters are used in more sensitive areas to minimize road construction, slash and snags are left for wildlife habitat, and so on.

Different species of trees need different methods of harvest for optimum regrowth and economic return.  In northern climates, species like western hemlock and Sitka spruce desire openings for optimum regeneration and regrowth.  Clearcut logging takes advantage of this tendency and allows young trees the opportunity to thrive.  Also, relatively thin bark on these species makes them more susceptible to harm from selective harvesting.  Cedars are more shade tolerant and could benefit from multiple age management in a mixed forest.

Unassisted regeneration takes place rapidly in Alaska’s coastal forests, seedlings growing as much as 4 feet per year for the first 20 years.

Some people think trees shouldn’t be cut at all, that they will last forever.  But forests are living systems – trees grow up, grow old and die, whether they are harvested or not.  Benefits accrue to the local communities from active management by professional foresters. That management includes recreation, wildlife habitat protection as well as timber harvests.

Tongass Forest Facts

Myths & Misconceptions vs. The Truth

The information below comes from the Forest Service in Region 10 and from their website.

Anti-development groups allege that the Forest Service spends $35 million per year subsidizing the timber program in Alaska.

The Forest Service budget for Alaska is about $114 million this year. The Forest Service cost of preparing and administering timber sales is about $36 per thousand board feet (MBF). The government receives an average stumpage of about $41 per MBF. Last year the timber industry harvested about 50,000 MBF. The government cost was about $1.8 million and the stumpage was about $2.05 million.

Misinformed critics claim that the Forest Service has a $900 million road maintenance backlog in Alaska.

The Forest Service spends about $11.9 million annually grading roads, cutting roadside brush and upgrading culverts to meet a new fish-passage requirement that was adopted a few years ago. This money is spent on maintaining the 1,200 miles of roads for passenger vehicles to meet the need for improved road connections between communities. The Forest Service also has proposed a capital budget of about $735 million for paving roads, upgrading bridges, etc. This is not road maintenance.

Some people have been misled to believe that the Government will save $35 million annually by eliminating the timber program in Alaska.

At the current low operating level (50,000 MBF per year) timber sale preparation and administration costs are about $1.8 million and the cost of complying with various federal planning requirements including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is about $5.5 million. The cost of preparing these NEPA documents has risen from about $40 to about $110 per MBF over the last few years as a direct result of appeals and lawsuits. A true savings could occur if the appeals and lawsuits ended. That makes more sense than forcing hundreds of people (taxpayers) out of work.

Incorrect but often repeated allegations suggest that wolves, bears, deer, eagles, salmon, etc. are threatened by logging on the Tongass.

There are no threatened or endangered animals on the Tongass. The current Tongass Land Management Plan has been reviewed by independent biologists who found the Plan to be fully capable of meeting our obligations to manage habitat for well-distributed, viable wildlife populations.

Development critics claim that millions of acres of roadless areas on the Tongass are threatened.

Only about 2% of the Tongass has been harvested in the last 50 years. The road system that has been developed for logging, recreation and for connecting communities impacts only about 7% of the entire 17 million acre forest. The current management plan allows continued harvest of up to another 2% of the Tongass over the next 50 years!

Many people believe, incorrectly, that there is no demand for timber from the Tongass.

There is an enormous demand for Tongass timber. Lumber and veneer prices are currently at very high levels. Alaska’s wood has superior strength and appearance characteristics compared to the softwood timber in the rest of our country. The primary impediment to the timber industry is a reliable timber supply that will allow our industry to be competitive and sustainable. The federal government controls 94% of the land, thus we must rely on a portion of those lands to support our economic base.

Wilderness advocates allege that there is plenty of timber available along the existing road system and there is no need to enter any roadless areas.

Most of the timber remaining in the developed areas was left for a specific conservation purpose such as a stream buffer, winter deer habitat, scenic quality, etc. Only about 30,000 MBF per year can be made available without either violating the guidelines in the forest plan or entering a few of the roadless areas. This would not sustain even one medium size sawmill.

Environmental groups allege that most of the “big trees” have already been logged and the Forest Service is targeting the remaining “big trees” in their logging plans.

Most of the “big trees” are still standing. The largest trees grow primarily along the beaches and streamsides. The Forest Service maintains 200’ stream buffers and 1,000’ beach fringe buffers. The Forest Service has also set aside old growth reserves that are predominately higher value timber with larger trees. The average log size on the Tongass is about 12 inches.

Tongass National Forest

Questions & Answers

Provided by: United States Dept. of Agriculture – Forest Service
Release Date: Feb. 12, 2004

Haven’t 70% of the biggest trees and best timber stands already been logged?

About seven percent of the total productive old-growth (400,000 acres out of 5,400,000 acres) has been harvested over the last 100 years. About 15% of the very highest high volume stands have been harvested, while about 85% of the Forest’s highest volume old-growth remains unharvested. Over the next 100 years, the Forest Plan permits harvest of less than ten percent more of the high volume old-growth.

Isn’t the part of the Tongass National Forest where logging isn’t allowed all rocks, ice and muskeg?

There are about 5 million acres of “commercial-size” timber stands on the Tongass; of which about 4.5 million acres, or 90%, are off-limits to timber harvesting. Over the next 100 years, the current Forest Plan will permit harvest of an additional 3-4% of the productive old-growth reducing it from about 90% to around 87%. An additional 4.2 million acres of low-productivity forest also will not have timber harvesting activities.

Won’t the timber harvests scheduled by the Forest Service “rip the biological heart” out of the Tongass?

The Forest Plan was designed and written specifically to protect the “biological heart” of the Forest. The Tongass National Forest Plan has been scientifically reviewed by independent biologists who found it to be fully capable of meeting our obligations to manage habitat to maintain well-distributed, viable wildlife populations. The old-growth strategy is designed to provide for a level of timber harvest that is consistent with protecting other resource values.

Isn’t logging harmful to fish and wildlife habitat?

Forest management can be consistent with wildlife objectives. There are especially bright prospects for partial cutting on the Tongass. Managing for a mosaic of forest patches has been suggested for deer in southeast Alaska. In addition, recent work suggests that certain types of partial cutting conserves deer habitat and old-growth structure, while maintaining the health of the forest. Silvicultural treatment in second growth stands also enhances habitat for deer and other species that depend on undergrowth.

Do Forest Service culverts keep fish from swimming upstream to spawn?

While nearly all culverts were installed in conformance with the fish-passage standard that was in place at the time of construction, some of the older culverts do not meet current standards during all stream flows. The Forest Service has been investing about $2 million annually reconstructing these old culverts, or removing them, to restore historic fish access to their habitat. Approximately 165 culverts have been replaced (as of the end of 2003) to improve fish passage, meet the new fish pass standards, and address this issue. With an annual budget of between $1.5 and $2.0 million, the Forest Service plans to address approximately 50 sites each year.
While a significant number of culverts still do not meet the very strict standards, the presence of salmon or steelhead has been verified above 66 percent of salmon streams with “barrier” culverts. Resident fish species have been verified above 72 percent of the resident fish streams identified with barrier culverts. Habitat surveys have found that approximately 70 percent of the problem culverts identified so far have less than ¼ mile of fish habitat upstream of them. The 10-year average commercial salmon harvest, attributed to production from the National Forests in Alaska, is 162 million pounds and is valued at over $100 million. The Forest Plan maintains this valuable fishery and does not jeopardize future stability of this important resource.

Aren’t most of the trees cut on the Tongass shipped to Asia unprocessed?

In general, about 8% of the timber harvested on the Tongass National Forest is Alaska yellow cedar. Most of the Alaska yellow cedar is permitted for export after a export request is approved by the Regional Forester. Virtually all of the rest of the timber harvested on the Tongass is processed in Southeast Alaska.

Why does the Forest Service keep selling timber, when there isn’t any real demand for the wood?

The economy of Southeast Alaska consists of tourism, fishing, service industries, recreation, mining and timber. The timber industry is an important leg that supports the larger economy of the State and Southeast Alaska. The Tongass National Forest Plan recognized the need to preserve the biological heart of the forest while providing for the inclusion of jobs on the human-side of the ecosystem equation. Timber harvest is schedule over the next 100 years on approximately 4% of the land-base. Timbering and providing pristine wild country to future generations of Americans can and do co-exist on the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

The timber industry is in a transition period since the pulp mill contracts have been terminated and timber producers are finding new markets for the lower grade logs. Mill operators from the lower 48 are interested in opening new manufacturing facilities in Southeast Alaska which by itself speaks to market demand. The Wood Testing Research Center in Ketchikan is concluding tests that positively display that wood from the Tongass has high qualities including breaking and stiffness strengths greater than that of Douglas-fir. The industry is currently applying for wood grades from the American Lumber Standards Committee for Alaska yellow cedar, western hemlock and Sitka spruce. Demand is expected to increase as the standards are approved and implemented. The largest unknown for the timber industry is environmental appeal and litigation of the environmental analysis completed for future timber sales.

Isn’t the Forest Service subsidizing the timber industry in SE Alaska by losing $35 million dollars a year on the Tongass?

The cost of compliance with various federal planning requirements including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) plus the costs of responding to NEPA appeals and litigation costs approximately $110 per thousand board feet.

The cost of timber sale field preparation, appraisal, advertisement and field sale administration costs approximately $36 per thousand board feet. The stumpage for the Forest Service volume under contract averages of $41 per thousand board feet.

For a variety of reasons, profitability is a poor yardstick for evaluating the performance of the national forest timber sale program:

  • The national forests are not managed like a private timber growing business. – As a matter of law and policy, the national forest timber program is not managed like a private timber growing business. Important differences revolve around such things as the longer growing periods (i.e., rotations) and higher stocking levels that are commonly employed, the greater emphasis placed on natural and uneven-aged management as opposed to plantation and even-aged management, the greater emphasis placed on the non-timber benefits obtainable from forest lands, the greater emphasis placed on thoroughly analyzing all the potential environmental effects of proposed timber sale projects, and the more open administrative processes and procedures that are employed – e.g., the agency’s administrative appeals process. If we do not want national forest managers to behave like private forest managers, does it make sense to judge their performance by the private sector’s main performance standard – i.e., profits?
  • Timber sales are oftentimes the “least net cost” method of achieving desired management objectives. – As noted earlier, timber sales are increasingly being used mainly as a tool for achieving various land management objectives, other than fiber production, that require manipulating the existing vegetation – e.g., improving forest health and reducing the risk of catastrophic fire. While sales of this type are frequently below-cost, the net cost to the government of achieving such land stewardship goals is oftentimes minimized when a timber sale is used to attain the desired ends. This result is explained by the fact that timber sales, unlike the other ways of manipulating vegetation – e.g., prescribed burning, use of chemical herbicides, and mechanical treatments such as cut-&-leave – typically generate revenue to help offset their implementation costs.
  • Timber sales provide many benefits beyond the revenues earned. – Returns to the US Treasury are only one of the benefits derived from national forest timber sales. From an economic standpoint there are the job opportunities that are created, the additional income that accrues to individuals and businesses, the increment in tax receipts that governments receive by virtue of taxing this added income, the improved forest access that occurs as a result of timber-related road construction and reconstruction activities, and the legally required receipt-share payments that go to benefit local schools and roads. From an ecologic standpoint, there are the various land stewardship objectives that are addressed through timber harvesting – e.g., the improvements in forest health, the reductions in the risk of catastrophic fire, and the enhanced habitat conditions for wildlife. As the economic account of TSPIRS has consistently shown, to the extent that we can quantify them, the present value of the long-term benefits associated with national forest timber sales exceed the present value of the long-term costs.
  • There is no legal direction to earn a profit from the sale of national forest timber. – The statutes under which the national forests are managed do not mandate that the agency make a profit from the sale of timber; indeed, some key laws – e.g., the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960, and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 – contain language which explicitly suggests or states that some management decisions should not to be based on profit maximization considerations. However, the Forest Service does have an obligation to use taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible. Even though the national forest timber sale program operates at a financial “loss”, this loss does not represent a subsidy of federal timber purchasers.

Doesn’t logging always harm tourism and subsistence opportunities?

Properly designed timber sales can be either neutral or actually beneficial to both recreation and subsistence users. For example, road-based recreation opportunities are nearly non-existent in southeast Alaska, except where logging has first built road systems. On Prince of Wales Island, for example, improving and paving part of this road system has greatly improved transportation amongst rural communities while providing greater opportunities for people to enjoy their national forest through road access. These road systems often provide enhanced access for subsistence users as well.

Isn’t the Forest Service giving the “crown jewel” of national forests to “timber barons” or “giant multi-national corporations”?

All the sawmills currently operating in SE Alaska are community-based, family owned, small businesses. Not only are these enterprises vital parts of the economic life of southeast Alaska communities, their owners and workers are an important part of the social fabric of the area.

Isn’t the Forest Service wasting money building roads to nowhere?

Southeast Alaska is located in the Alexander Archipelago, and consists of numerous islands. All communities in Southeast Alaska are not connected by roads to the outside world with the exception of Haines and Skagway. The large majority of roads that are located in towns of Southeast Alaska and that connect villages on the same island were originally constructed by the Forest Service for timber sale purposes. Along with basic transportation uses, Forest roads are used by recreationists, subsistence users, outfitters and guides. Some of the roads constructed through Forest Service timber sale contracts provide basic access to these users.