A meeting of the Tongass Futures Roundtable at the Alaska Native Brotherhood hall in Yakutat.
By Dustin Solberg
The magnificent Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska has long been the center of a bitter conflict over timber — how to harvest it, how much to harvest, and how the logging will affect those who have lived there for millennia.
That’s why The Nature Conservancy helped to establish the Tongass Futures Roundtable — a group that is helping to turn that discord into dialogue…and productive conservation opportunities.
The innovative roundtable brings together a diverse group of stakeholders — ranging from corporations to government officials to indigenous peoples — to discuss issues such as timber harvest, ecosystem protection, habitat restoration and the land claims of Alaska Native people in the Tongass.
Already the group has helped to resolve major litigation on the forest, increase understanding of key issues among opposing parties and catalyze local cooperative conservation projects.
“The roundtable has helped bring people together at a time of unprecedented change in Southeast Alaska,” says John Sisk, director of the Conservancy’s Tongass Futures program. “We’ve been able to come together to help chart a future for the Tongass that simultaneously considers salmon and wildlife habitat and the rural economy.”
The nearly 17-million-acre Tongass is part of an increasingly rare temperate rainforest of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, Western red cedar and yellow cedar. The forest stretches beyond Alaska, through the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia and into the Pacific Northwest. The Conservancy has a key role in conserving millions of acres of the Great Bear, and now aims for similar results in the Tongass. Together, the Tongass and Great Bear make the largest intact temperate rainforest remaining in the world.
These coastal temperate rainforests are a vital salmon nursery. Every year, millions of wild Pacific salmon spawn in the forest’s rivers and streams, providing food for brown and black bears, wolves and bald eagles. These rich streams and rivers nourish one of the largest estuarine systems on Earth.
Launched in 2006, the roundtable membership includes grassroots and national conservation groups, Alaska Native tribes and corporations, logging and wood manufacturing companies, municipal governments, the U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies. In this setting, a diverse representation of solution-minded delegates with varying viewpoints meet four times a year to discuss issues in the Tongass — and engage in trust-building.
At one recent meeting, roundtable members gathered in Yakutat, a Tlingit village pressed between lush temperate rainforest and a sandy beach fringed by the Pacific Ocean. In the historic white-clapboard community hall of the local Alaska Native Brotherhood, conversations covered a range of topics including forest restoration, how climate change affects the Tongass, and the protection of sacred sites.
These morning-to-night moderated discussions paused only for meals served family-style: homemade sourdough pancakes — an Alaska morning staple — or platters of local wild salmon baked with a sprinkling of herbs.
One of several conservation outcomes of these meetings is a 2008 decision by the Forest Service to defer timber harvesting indefinitely on more than one million acres in the Tongass. Before that decision, many of these areas of temperate old-growth forest had been slated for logging.
“There are still many important forest areas at risk,” says Erin Dovichin, the Conservancy’s deputy state director in Alaska. “But the deferral eased some of the intensity of the conflict in the short term and bought some time for all involved to work together. We’re focused now on longer term solutions that provide economic benefit to local communities while preserving important ecological, cultural and social values.”
Conservation science research conducted by the Conservancy and Audubon Alaska identified management strategies to protect certain watersheds in their entirety, provide a reliable supply of timber for industry, and restore some rivers and wildlife habitats. The recent U.S. Forest Service decision to not schedule timber harvesting in many of the key watersheds and habitats of the Tongass relied in part on these conservation findings.
The Conservancy is now working with members of the roundtable to consider how this type of information might become a cornerstone of a comprehensive, long-term management strategy.
“I think that people are tired of the fight and want to balance responsible use of resources with maintaining the natural values and ecological integrity of the forest,” says Dovichin. “I am hopeful about the future.”
Dustin Solberg is a writer and marketing specialist based in Anchorage, Alaska.September 16, 2011