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Notice

Extension of Certain Alaska Timber Sale Contracts; Finding of Substantial Public Interest

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AGENCY:

Forest Service, USDA.

ACTION:

Notice

SUMMARY:

There is substantial overriding public interest in extending Start Printed Page 51166National Forest System timber sale contracts in Alaska for 3 years, subject to a maximum total contract length of 10 years. The extension applies to timber sale contracts awarded after January 1, 1997, which purchasers are diligently performing (not in default). To receive the extension, purchasers must request the extension in writing to the Contracting Officer and agree to release the Forest Service from damages for the replacement cost of timber if the contract is canceled in the future.

Contract extensions in Southeast Alaska will serve the public interest by advancing the Department's goal of economic stability through employment in Southeast Alaska in the wake of the closing of the region's two pulp mills. The intended effect is to minimize contract defaults, mill closures, and company bankruptcies.

DATES:

The determination was made on July 30, 2002.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Rex Baumback, Forest and Rangelands Staff (202) 205-0855.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

The Forest Service sells timber from National Forest System lands to individuals or companies. Each sale is formalized by execution of a contract between the purchaser and the Forest Service. The contract sets forth the explicit terms and provisions of the sale, including such matters as the estimated volume of timber to be removed, the period for removal, price to be paid to the Government, road construction and logging requirements, and environmental protection measures to be taken. The average contract period is approximately 2 years, although a few contracts have terms of 5 or more years.

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (16 U.S.C. 472a(c)) provides that the Secretary of Agriculture shall not extend any timber sale contract period with an original term of 2 years or more, unless the purchaser has diligently performed in accordance with an approved plan of operations or the “substantial overriding public interest” justifies the extension. The authority to make this determination has been delegated to the Chief at 7 CFR 2.60.

The closure of the pulp mills operated by the Alaska Pulp Corporation (APC) and Ketchikan Pulp Company (KPC) in 1993 and 1997, respectively, has had a significant effect on the overall regional economy in Southeast Alaska. Wood consumption by these pulp mills and their associate sawmills accounted for about half of Alaska National Forest timber harvest since 1980. Employment in the wood products sector has declined significantly since the peak of 1990, decreasing by 2,500 jobs, or 72 percent, between 1990 and 2000. While this total includes the entire pulp mill labor force, which accounted for nearly 900 jobs in 1990, a larger absolute loss occurred in the logging sector with a loss of 1,433 jobs. A total of 993 people were employed in the wood products sector in 2000. Employment decreases tend to lag behind decreases in production. consequently, current wood products employment is projected to fall even lower since harvest has not rebounded. The unemployment rate in Alaska is 5 percent to 11 percent higher than the national average of 6 percent. Government indices indicate that the Western softwood lumber market has declined approximately 25 percent since mid-1999. Harvest from Tongass National Forest timber sales has steadily declined from 338 million board feet in 1990 to 147 million board feet in 2000. Although 2001 harvest level was only 48 million board feet, the lowest since industrial wood production started in the early 1950's this level was influenced not only by poor markets but also by court ordered injunctions that halted harvest for a portion of the year.

Rules at 36 CFR 223.52 permit contract extensions when Forest Service officials determine that adverse wood product market conditions have resulted in a drastic decline in wood product prices. Under market-related contract addition procedures, the Forest Service refers to the Western softwood lumber price index (PCU2421#4) to measure severe market declines in Western softwoods. The index has reflected the market decrease. Timber sale purchasers in Alaska, who have so requested, have received up to the maximum of 3 years of additional contract time authorized by 36 CFR 223.52. However, the market has not recovered, and companies in Alaska are still facing contract default, mill closure, and bankruptcy.

It has been determined that additional contract time will assist these purchasers by giving them more time in which the market may improve or in which they can mix their high-priced sales with lower priced sales. If bankruptcies, mill closures, and defaulted contracts are avoided, the United States and Southeast Alaska will benefit from more stable employment and market opportunities and increased competition for National Forest System timber sales. This action is consistent with Congress' direction to the Secretary in the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 (16 U.S.C. 539d (note)) to provide for the multiple use and sustained yield of forest resources and to seek to provide a supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest which meets the annual market demand for timber from the Forest. This goal was also embodied in the February 21, 1997, settlement agreement reached between the Forest Service and the Ketchikan Pulp Company.

Accordingly, based on a study of alternatives and current rules at 36 CFR 223.115, it has been determined that there is substantial overriding public interest in extending sales in Alaska for up to 3 years, but not to exceed a total contract length of 10 years. To receive the extension, purchasers must request the extension in writing to the Contracting Officer and agree to release the Forest Service from damages for the replacement cost of timber if the contract is canceled in the future. The text of the finding is set out at the end of this notice.

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Dated: July 30, 2002.

Sally D. Collins,

Associate Chief.

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Determination of Substantial Overriding Public Interest for Extending Certain Timber Sale Contracts in Alaska

The Tongass Timber Reform Act (16 U.S.C. 539d (note)) directs the Secretary to provide for the multiple use and sustained yield of forest resources and to seek to provide a supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest which meets the annual market demand for timber from the Forest. Consistent with this direction the Forest Service seeks to maintain an economically viable timber sale program, which includes keeping volume under contract for future harvesting.

Periodically, lumber markets may experience severe declines in prices. Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics producer price indices, the lumber market for Western softwoods peaked in July 1999. Since then, price indices have declined approximately 25 to 30 percent. With the closings in 1993 and 1997 of the pulp mills operated by the Alaska Pulp Corporation and the Ketchikan Pulp Company, the economy of Southeast Alaska changed significantly. At the time of the mill closures, the Department committed itself to aiding the timber-dependent communities in Southeast Alaska by advancing the goal of economic stability through employment in the region. Currently, the unemployment rate in Alaska is 5 percent to 11 percent higher than the national average of 6 percent.

While most Forest Service timber sale contracts in Alaska contain provisions to extend termination dates during severely declining markets, many contracts have been extended for the Start Printed Page 51167maximum amount of time permissable under 36 CFR 223.52. Nevertheless, the market has not improved significantly, and many companies in Alaska are still facing contract default, mill closure, and bankruptcy. A contract extension would assist these purchases by giving additional time in which the market may improve or in which they could mix their high-priced sales with lower-priced sales.

Having numerous, economically viable timber sale purchasers both maintains market opportunities and increases competition for National Forest System timber sales. These factors result in higher prices paid for such timber. Therefore, the Government benefits if defaulted timber sale contracts, mill closures, and bankruptcies can be avoided by granting contract extensions. In addition, the Government would avoid the difficult and expensive process of collecting default damages.

Therefore, pursuant to 16 U.S.C. 472a, 36 CFR 223.115, and the authority delegated to the Chief at 7 CFR 2.60 and from the Chief to the Associate Chief in Forest Service Manual Chapter 1230, I have determined that there is substantial overriding public interest in extending for 3 years National Forest System timber sales contracts in Alaska, subject to a maximum total contract length of 10 years. To receive the extension purchasers must make written request to the Contracting Officer and agree to release the Forest Service from damages for the replacement cost of timber if the contract is canceled in the future.

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Dated: July 30, 2002.

Sally D. Collins,

Associate Chief.

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[FR Doc. 02-19869 Filed 8-6-02; 8:45 am]

BILLING CODE 3410-11-M