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The Tongass National Forest - At Risk? NO: don't confuse it with Amazon blight [ cf. YES: thanks to Washington's bargain-basement timber sales ]

THERE are myths about Alaska that are entertaining: like the stories of mosquitoes larger than crows (they're not), or temperatures so cold a tossed glass of water will freeze before it hits ground (it won't). There are other myths about my state that are more serious because they can affect public policy decisions that in turn have a negative impact on the livelihood of thousands of Alaska residents. The timber industry in Alaska's Tongass National forest is one such case. A new myth has it that timber harvesting in the Tongass is contributing to the world's global warming problems. This one is also untrue. In fact, the magnificent tree regeneration in the Tongass and our practice of ``sustained yield'' forestry (whereby a forest is never cut at a rate which exceeds its ability to regenerate itself) are part of the answer to the problems of deforestation and ``global warming,'' not the cause.

Under a sustained-yield management plan, 90 percent of the Tongass is set aside as wilderness and for other non-timber uses. Only 10 percent will be logged over the next 100 years. And in the harvested area, 48 trees grow back for every tree removed.

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Harvesting trees on a continuing sustained-yield basis helps to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. More Tongass trees die each year of old age than are cut down. Replacing some of the old and dying forest with young, vigorously growing forest increases the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere. This is in sharp contrast to methods being used in the tropics, where trees are cut and burned, and the land is converted to farming.

Important legislation introduced by Sen. Timothy Wirth would address the global warming issue, but it also includes a section addressing timber management in the Tongass. Some of my colleagues recently traveled to Brazil and saw examples of tragic deforestation; they suppose that similar deforestation is occurring in the Tongass. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the tropics, burgeoning populations and inequitable land distribution, combined with expanding agricultural exports, have made crop land for subsistence farming scarce. Thus virgin forests are cleared to grow food. Poor tropical soils result in nearly continuous tree cropping and forest clearing, with the degraded land left behind unable to support new forest growth.

I hate to see the very serious tropical deforestation problem trivialized by those who would use it to influence domestic policy debates over America's national forests. Rather than attacking sustained-yield forest practices in our national forest system - a system conceived by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot to combat rampant deforestation in the United States during the 19th century - we should be holding our national forests and our sustained-yield practices out as an example to other nations.

For years, those who would end logging in the Tongass have zeroed-in on the federal money spent by the Forest Service to enhance timber production. The annual funding was part of a congressional compromise reached in 1980 that set aside one-third of the forest (5.5 million acres - an area larger than the state of Massachusetts) as wilderness. The other half of that compromise provided funding of at least $40 million annually for timber management to ensure a viable timber industry in southeast Alaska would remain; an industry upon which 4,500 jobs and one-third of the regional economy depends.

This year, in recognition of substantially improved timber markets, I introduced legislation to eliminate the automatic $40 million funding for the Tongass. Were the opponents of timber harvesting satisfied? No! They have simply found a new reason to justify their cause - global warming. As far as the Tongass is concerned, it is a reason based on myth rather than fact.