Logging levels on the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska have been at the forefront of discussions in the halls of the Nation’s Capitol this month.

Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski questioned the chief of the U.S. Forest Service on the possibilities for large, long-term timber sales during a budget hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee last week.

“Your predecessors in the department had committed to four ten-year timber sales, each with a volume of 150 to 200 million board feet,” Murkowski said to chief Tom Tidwell. “We’ve had two of these timber sales that were begun but have been downsized, they’ve been delayed. So what I need to know from you is whether or not you will direct the regional forester and the forest supervisor to take immediate action, to take those steps to honor that 10-year timber sale commitment in the Tongass.”

The region’s timber industry wants more timber offered for sale from the National Forest and more timber that can be logged economically. The agency began planning for 10-year sales on Wrangell Island and around Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island. However, last year’s court decision extending roadless area protection to the Tongass has reduced the amount of land available for timber harvests and made these 10-year-sales more difficult.

Forest Service Chief Tidwell said the agency was committed to putting out stewardship contracts, which focus on restoring forests and fish streams. He said that restoration work was a better approach than large timber harvests.

“I’m not interested in doing something that’ll just go in front of a judge and will be stopped and we will not be able to implement,” he said. “We’ve done too much of that. Where there’s been decisions that have been made and even though we win the majority of the times in court, there’s no work that gets done. I think the course that we’re on in Southeast Alaska and across this country about working together with a way to be able to put projects together that we can implement, that we can actually get work done on the ground, people get employed, jobs are created, forests are improved, we’ll be able to make use of the resources. I do believe it’s a better model.”

The stewardship contract approach allows the agency to use money from timber sales to pay for other nearby contract work. That can range from road and culvert repair to tree thinning, stream bed restoration and trail or cabin improvements.

Tidwell said the agency’s focus on harvest of second growth trees on already logged areas would also help with the timber sale amount. He said overall this year the target offering for the Tongass was 80 million board feet and said another 100 million board feet is already under contract. The annual logging level on the Tongass in the past decade has ranged from 19 to 50 million board feet.

Meanwhile, two conservation groups and several Alaska fishermen this month traveled to Washington D.C. to seek more funding in the Forest Service budget for fish habitat on the Tongass. Heather Hardcastle is a gillnetter from Juneau and made the trip with representatives from Trout Unlimited and the Sitka Conservation Society. Hardcastle and others met with staff for the Congressional delegation and the Forest service seeking increased funding for watershed restoration.

“I think that we can be better organized and speak for the habitat that’s so critical to our industry, a lot better, Hardcastle said. “And so we’re trying to make the effort to do that and to educate our leaders that if we want the success of the salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska to continue we need to first restore those areas that have been heavily impacted due to development in the past.”

The Obama Administration is requesting $4.8 billion for the Forest Service nationwide in the upcoming year, a $15 million increase from current funding levels.