06/24/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are Transition Plans Code for Climate Change Backtracking?


The USDA Forest Service is pushing through the sale of nearly 6,200 acres of Tongass rainforest's old growth timber for 10-15 years of logging, claiming that's what the timber industry needs to "transition" to second-growth timber management. Only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department's investigation of possible violation of the endangered species act is forestalling the tragic event.

So yes, I'm cynical about transition plans, particularly in this irreplaceable natural treasure, where ancient giant trees greater than 10 feet in diameter can grow for many centuries, and support habitat for five species of Pacific salmon, Steelhead, brown bear, black bear, wolves, Sitka black‐tailed deer, river otter and marten.

Back in 2010, the same U.S.D.A. Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged over three years to "end large-scale, old-growth timber harvest while... supporting bright spots in the regional economy such as fishing, tourism, visitor services, mariculture and alternative energy."

In fact, old-growth logging is less than one percent of Southeast Alaska's economy. Fishing brings in $6.4 billion, and employs 94,000 people. Tourism accounts for another $2.42 billion and accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs. Both industries are vulnerable to the proposed habitat destruction of logging.

Yet here we are. Again.

The struggle between the Tongass temperate rainforest and timber interests has been ongoing for 25 years. Didn't The Tongass Timber Reform Act put in place in 1990 for practical purposes end logging in Tongass and force the two pulp mills there to shut down? Didn't President Clinton, in 2001, pass protections for roadless areas? And didn't the house add an amendment to the Act in 2007 to specifically ban road construction in the Tongass forest?

So why now?

The New York Times reported that the Forest Service needs to raise money because it overspent fighting wildfires at the 2013 season peak and diverted $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas.

The drought was caused by climate change, which rainforests are uniquely designed to counter.

The irony is overwhelming.

To add a truly Kafkaesque twist: the Forest Service does not make a profit on Tongass timber, and by one analysis, has lost $1 billion since 1990.

Tongass timber companies have had since 1990 to "transition" out of old growth. Now they're getting another 10-15 years. This in a country whose democratic capitalism demands constant reinvention. So when I hear that word "transition" applied to other climate change legislation, it sounds alarms.

Those alarms were clanging loudly when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the new power plant regulations plan for an "orderly transition" from coal.

Writing in this week's TIME magazine, Michael Grunwald examines the plan's 2030 goal: to reduce emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels and coal generated electricity by 30 percent as well. But electricity from coal is already down 20 percent and another 10 percent of coal plants are scheduled for retirement. Its projections for renewable development are absurdly low.

In Grunwald's words, the plan "undershoots the current pace of decarbonization in electricity."

The EPA justifies its less than ambitious plan by asserting that its "transition" plan will forestall objections and lawsuits, especially from the big coal states. And objections have been muted so far. Predictably, theAmerican Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity contends the rules will stress state-based power grids, increase electric bills and increase the risk of rolling blackouts, but so far, it's just a PR gambit.

Lawmakers in fossil-fuel rich Louisiana are also condemning the plan, with Bill Cassidy, who is currently running for the Senate on an anti-Obama platform, summing up objections: "President Obama is proposing regulations that hamstring the economy, raising utility costs for families and destroying tens of thousands of jobs."

As for potential lawsuits, that door was effectively closed Monday the Supreme Court upheld the EPA's right to regulate of power plants by a vote of seven to two.

Maybe I'm wrong to be suspicious of "transition" plans that pull us back from where we were already headed. Certainly the Tongass old-growth sale, if it goes through, reverses course. Then again, sometimes, if you just stall, people sort things out for themselves. Obama stalled for six years on climate action against power plants, and even so, we're already halfway to a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. Now, there is an appetite for serious reduction in coal.

And Tongass? On June 10, with the summer timber harvest season about to start , a group of environmental NGOs brought suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying Endangered Species Act protection for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare and visually stunning creature found only in the old-growth forests of southeast Alaska.

What does that mean for transition plans? Maybe they're just another part of climate change itself -- unpredictable, sometimes Kafkaesque, often devastating and in the end, inevitable. Hopefully, the inevitability of both climate change and its politics will converge in time to save the planet.

Photo courtesy of Carol Pierson Holding