Forest Service mishandled timber sales, environmental group says

A Tongass National Forest clearcut is shown in this 2014 aerial view. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News)

A Washington, D.C., environmental group is accusing the Tongass National Forest of breaking its own timber-sale rules.

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility cited internal Forest Service documents in its critique of Tongass management. The national forest includes most of Southeast Alaska.

Executive Director Jeff Ruch said forest managers didn’t sufficiently review or monitor sales. They also allowed logging companies to cut corners, he said.

“And as a result, there were significant monetary losses,” Ruch said. “They didn’t accomplish their environmental goals. And the oversight was so poor that the Tongass National Forest didn’t even have copies of the contract, let alone the backup data.”

[Read a Forest Service report identifying problems with some Tongass timber sales.]

Alaska Forest Service officials responded with a news release, but wouldn’t grant an interview or answer specific questions.

In the release, officials said they’re already addressing issues raised in the internal review cited by its critics, which includes updating the appraisal process and making improvements to its timber sale administration.

“The Forest Service takes very seriously its obligation to ensure the accountability, integrity and effectiveness of the timber sale program,” the release said. “Internal reviews such as the Forest Management Activity Review referenced by (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) are routinely conducted to ensure the Forest Service achieves the management and strategic goals for the activities under review.”

Among its complaints, the public employees group said Tongass managers improperly allowed loggers to “cherry-pick” more valuable timber within sale areas, including spruce and cedar.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said that’s the only way to make timber sales economic.

“What they seem to be saying is the Forest Service should have forced them to log more hemlock trees, more lower-value trees. That would have got them more stumpage,” Graham said. “That doesn’t make any sense. If you harvest lower-value trees, you get less stumpage because the trees are worth less.”

The Ketchikan-based trade association has lobbied the Forest Service to provide enough timber to keep what’s left of the region’s industry alive.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is calling for an in-depth, forensic audit.

Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues.

He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.

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