Second-growth lumber
Sustainable lumber Newly milled second-growth lumber on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest. © Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Alaska

How TNC Science Brings Clarity to Tongass Timber Questions in Alaska

For a forester, the Tongass is a forest that stands apart. The reasons are many: giant old-growth trees, Sitka black-tailed deer and cascading salmon streams, to name a few. Also, as Nature Conservancy forester Conor Reynolds reports, you can stand in the rainforest, your logger’s tape in hand as you take the measure of a spruce, and listen to humpback whales blow in the waters beyond the forest’s edge.

You can stand in the rainforest, your logger’s tape in hand as you take the measure of a spruce, and listen to humpback whales blow in the waters beyond the forest’s edge.

Conor studies the science of forests and their ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. Last summer, he led a crew on Prince of Wales Island – the Delaware-sized island at the southern end of the Alaska panhandle where trees grow bigger than anywhere else in the 49th State. Many of the biggest trees are long gone. Much of the island’s old-growth Sitka spruce and Western hemlock forest was logged during the unsustainable pace of timber harvest in post-World War II pulp-mill era. It was the industry’s first chapter, and it lasted for decades.

As the economy of Southeast Alaska matures, it’s diversifying to include tourism, commercial fishing, mariculture, restoration, and a more sustainable timber industry.

The industry’s next chapter won’t look like the past. The vast second-growth forests on Prince of Wales Island are maturing and will soon be ready to support an industry as it transitions away from harvesting old-growth trees.

But when?

Our science has the answer. These forest surveys are part of a comprehensive study that uses airplanes to make digital forest measurements captured by pulses of light called lidar. Working with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners, a study is underway to provide a reliable inventory of second-growth forest to inform where forests and streams need to be restored for deer and salmon as well as where forests are ready for timber harvest – all to help shift the region away from logging old-growth trees.

“This is an example of how TNC’s science can bring diverse perspectives together to illuminate the path forward,” says Christine Woll, who directs our Southeast Alaska program.