||Alaska’s Forest Industry
In the 1970s the forest sector was the second largest industry in Alaska. However, government policy and federal land use shifts in the 1990s radically transformed the industry. Yet forestry still holds much potential to diversify the economy. The forest industry utilizes a renewable resource in a sustainable way, providing jobs and biomass energy for the 49th state.
Most commercial logging has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily in the Tongass National Forest and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Sitka spruce and western hemlock of very high quality have been exported as logs, lumber and timbers into the Pacific Rim for the past four decades. During much of this time, the lower quality portion of the timber was used to produce dissolving pulp, which was sold around the world for producing rayon, pharmaceuticals and paper products.
Products produced by Alaska mills include large cants and flitches, shop lumber destined for remanufacture, dimensional lumber, railway ties, shakes and shingles, music wood, and a host of specialty and craft products.
Over the past 20 years, the industry has been in decline. Political and economic pressures, increased federal land withdrawals, a more stringent regulatory climate and environmental lawsuits forced the closure of Southeast Alaska’s two pulp mills. The Tongass Land Use Management Plan, issued in 1997, sharply reduced allowable harvest levels.
The downward spiral of the Southeast Alaska timber industry has adversely affected local communities, schools, and economies. However, creation of the Southeast State Forest in 2011 was a good start to securing a state-owned land base for forest management in that region.
More harvests are now taking place on state lands, including the “boreal” forest in Interior Alaska, which contains stands of white spruce, cottonwood, aspen and paper birch. In fact, the industry in Interior Alaska is experiencing slow, but steady growth as wood biomass projects are developed to meet community needs for economic space heating and electrical generation.
Clearly, federal policies and management practices have failed to provide sufficient timber supply for Southeast’s timber industry. Over the past decade, harvests have fallen to record lows in the Tongass, including the cutting of only 19 million board feet (mmbf) in 2007. In FY 2012, only 21 mmbf was harvested from the Tongass, even though the current forest plan allows for an annual sustainable harvest of up to 267 mmbf. In 2011, 33 mmbf of timber was harvested. To put these harvests in perspective, the annual sustainable harvest level for the Tongass set under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, was 520 mmbf.
Timber harvests on Native corporation lands reached 110 mmbf in 2011.
Meanwhile, the State of Alaska sold 24 mmbf of timber in 71 sales statewide in FY 2011. These sales included timber to help support mills in Southeast Alaska hit hard by the decline in federal timber sales.
According to the Alaska Department of Labor, there were 307 people directly employed in forestry and logging jobs across Alaska in 2011, down from 4,600 in 1990. An additional 150 in wood products and manufacturing jobs contributed to a total payroll $21 million in 2011.
Facts & Economic Impact
- Alaska has 129 million acres of forested land, stretching from the coastal rain forest of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska to the boreal forest of the Interior.
- Four landlords manage Alaska’s forests: the federal government, 51%; state and local government, including the University of Alaska system, 25%; Native corporations, 24%; and private landowners, 0.4%.
- Most commercial timber harvesting has taken place in the coastal zone, primarily on federal and Native corporation land in Southeast and coastal Southcentral Alaska. Given less than one percent of Alaska is in conventional private ownership, private, non-industrial timberland owners play little role in supplying timber to industry.
- Current forest inventory data indicates the state owns 4.3 million acres of commercial forest capable of growing 20 cubic feet per acre annually.
- Logging and wood products employment remains a mere shadow of its past, falling from 4,600 jobs in 1990 to approximately 307 logging jobs and 150 wood products manufacturing jobs in 2011. Annual payroll lost since 1990 is well over $100 million. Payroll in recent years has fallen to approximately $21 million for the logging and the forest products manufacturing sector. (Alaska Department of Labor)
- The State of Alaska Division of Forestry manages forests for multiple uses and sustained yield of renewable resources on 20 million acres of state land. This includes the Tanana Valley State Forest, the Haines State Forest, and the new Southeast Alaska State Forest. The Division conducts personal use, commercial timber, and fuel-wood sales. It emphasizes in-state use of wood for value-added processing.
- In 2011, the State of Alaska sold 24 mmbf of timber in 71 sales, most of which went to Alaskan purchasers for value-added processing. These sales included timber to help support mills in Southeast Alaska, which have been hit hard by declines in federal sales, and sales for lumber, house logs, and fuel wood in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
- State sales in Southeast Alaska provided critical volume to local mills during the downturn in federal timber sales. However, in the long term, state sales cannot sustain local mills without increased federal supply, given the state’s limited land base in the region.
- Timber harvests on Native lands in Southeast Alaska and on Afognak Island in Southcentral Alaska reached 110 million board feet in 2011. Private operations account for over two-thirds of all logging jobs in Alaska. (Alaska Department of Labor, Alaska Forest Association)
- Only 33 mmbf of timber was harvested on federal land inside Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest in 2011. In FY 2012, only 21 mmbf was harvested from the forest. This nearly broke the all-time low harvest of 19 mmbf in 2007. (U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
- The annual harvest level originally set by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was 520 million board feet, the typical volume of timber harvested from the forest on an annual basis prior to 1980.
- Timber harvests in the Tongass are likely to be constrained again in 2013, due to litigation by environmental groups targeting timber sales across the forest and federal land management policy.
- The annual harvest ceiling set under the Tongass Land Management Plan is 267 mmbf. The Forest Service concedes the harvest is unlikely to exceed 100 mmbf annually for a number of years. The installed manufacturing capacity remaining in the region is about 265 million board feet and the normal operating capacity for the currently-operating mills is about 100 mmbf. (Alaska Forest Association, U.S. Forest Service)
- At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in America. Overall, 10 million acres of the Tongass is forested and 5.5 million acres is considered commercial timberland. (U.S. Forest Service)
- Since 1907, only a little over 400,000 acres have been logged in the Tongass. Under the new Tongass plan, only 6.5 percent of commercial-grade old-growth acreage will be harvested between now and 2108. (Alaska Forest Association, U.S. Forest Service)
- Two hundred years from now, at least 83 percent of the current old-growth will still remain intact in the forest. (U.S. Forest Service)
- While the industry is currently constrained to harvesting about 30 mmbf of timber from the Tongass into the foreseeable future, the young-growth in the national forest is currently growing at a rate of over 500 million board feet annually. Unfortunately, it will be at least another 30 years before the young-growth is mature. (Alaska Forest Association)
- At 5.9 million acres, the Chugach National Forest in coastal Southcentral Alaska is the second largest forest in America. There is no commercial timber harvest occurring in the Chugach, nor is one provided for in the current management plan. (U.S. Forest Service)
- The State of Alaska issued 1,410 personal use wood permits in 2011, helping to offset high fuel costs in rural areas. This was a slight decrease from the last couple of years, but is still more than a 20-fold increase in permitting since FY 05. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
- In 2011, 515 fires burned 293,018 acres statewide. The fire season was characterized by a relatively low number of lightening strikes and persistent rain that covered much of the state throughout the summer. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
- State and federal agencies identified over 550,000 acres of forest damage from insects, disease, declines, and selected abiotic agents on over 31 million acres surveyed. This acreage is 57 percent less than the mapped acreage for 2010. (Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry)
Governor's Timber Task Force
On May 5, 2012, Governor Sean Parnell issued an administrative order creating the Alaska Timber Jobs Task Force, a combined federal, State, and private industry group tasked with developing recommendations for timber industry job creation in Alaska. In sum, the Task Force identified the following priority statewide issues that present the greatest impediments to job growth and economic development for Alaska’s timber industry: Timber supply; workforce development; and public education and outreach.
Additional information about the Task Force and the work being performed by the group can be obtained at: forestry.alaska.gov/aktimber_jobstaskforce.htm
- State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources
- U.S. Forest Service
- Alaska Forest Association