Whale Pass wants carbon credits instead of timber sale but state says no

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A timber area above a house in Whale Pass. (Courtesy James Greeley)

The Southeast Alaska island community of Whale Pass is asking the state to pursue carbon credits instead of a nearby timber sale. But state officials say they’re going ahead with the logging project.

Whale Pass has long opposed a nearby timber sale on state land. The state approved the project this spring to clear-cut nearly 300 acres of old growth on a steep slope behind the town. Residents say it’s just too close.

“A clear-cut right in town. You know, directly in the backyard, ” said city Assembly member James Greeley.

Greeley said the project site is just 100 feet away from his property line. He also said residents are concerned about many things: more exposure to wind, messing with the watershed used for homes, affecting salmon streams, and the community’s growing tourist industry – the logging traffic and “visual eyesore” on the landscape.

“No one’s really anti-logging out of this whole group,” said Greeley. “We’re just kind of saying, ‘You know, maybe not this timber sale’, is basically it.”

Residents have asked the state to adjust the boundaries but were rejected. Now, the community is asking the state to reconsider the project – and seek carbon-offset credits instead. This follows a new state law that allows the Department of Natural Resources to develop a system to use the state’s forested land to sell carbon-offset credits. Companies would basically pay the state to keep its trees intact. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who introduced the bill said it, “will generate new revenue for the state.”

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This DNR map depicts the state’s land near Whale Pass in dark green, the timber sale in yellow, and roads for the project in red dashes. (From Alaska DNR)

Whale Pass’s Assembly approved a resolution supporting carbon-credits. And Greeley sent a letter to Alaska DNR Commissioner John Boyle explaining locals’ stance – that carbon credits would be much more profitable than the timber sale.

“The difference is like, insane, really,” Greeley said.

He said the city worked with the Nature Conservancy of Alaska to come up with the profit estimates. It shows carbon credits, over time, could bring in anywhere from about $1 million to nearly $7 million, according to various market prices.

The state’s DNR said it does not have an estimate yet on how much the timber sale at Whale Pass will make. The project went out to auction on Oct. 14.

Amy Miller, a spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy, said carbon credit projects are a win-win.

“They create the opportunity for a community to preserve a resource that’s important to them, and also earn some money in the process,” she said.

The Whale Pass harvest requires four miles of new logging roads to be built, which is expensive. Greeley said the state can make more money without all of that required development.

“They’re telling me that they can’t give me a bigger buffer on my property, because they won’t be able to cover the cost of building the road, to even have the timber sale,” Greeley said. “Versus if they don’t even have to do anything, they’re gonna make 10 times as much.”

Despite the ongoing opposition, the state is moving forward with the project. No one from the DNR office would agree to an interview for this story. But in a written statement, Boyle repeated what the department has said before – that the state’s constitution mandates that the department uses natural resources on public lands.

Boyle wrote that while carbon offsets present new opportunities, “Regular timber harvests in our Southeast State Forest ensures DNR meets that mandate.”

The two main logging companies in Southeast — ALCAN in Ketchikan and Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island — have been asking the state for timber sales. The state’s DNR blames the federal government for not supplying logging opportunities on federal land because of the Roadless Rule.

In February, Greg Staunton, the state’s area forester told CoastAlaska that officials have to provide old-growth logging near communities in some cases.

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Pink harvest boundary tape hangs from a tree near Whale Pass. (Courtesy James Greeley)

“A lot of the land base that we’ve been charged with managing here is in proximity to where communities are,” Staunton said.

But Katie Rooks, with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said seeking a timber sale instead of carbon credits doesn’t make sense. She’s seen the numbers and said they don’t add up.

“What Whale Pass sent the state definitively proves that this timber is worth more economically to the state itself, if left on the stump,” Rooks said.

Rooks said there is also the value of leaving the landscape for the town, which is a subsistence community something that Whale Pass residents were asking the state to consider.

“The state’s response to this proposal – it reads angrily,” Rooks said. “It reads as if the state is penalizing its own town, the town of Whale Pass for the federal government’s lack of supply of timber. And that’s unfortunate.”

Other communities and tribal governments on Prince of Wales island have also voiced opposition to the project. State officials say logging could start early next year, depending on the harvester’s needs.

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