Logs are stacked on the Lindenberg Peninsula of Kupreanof Island near Petersburg in July of 2013, awaiting barge transport to a sawmill. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Some residents of Petersburg are asking the borough assembly to pass a resolution seeking accounting for losses on U.S. Forest Service timber sales on Kupreanof and Prince of Wales islands. It was a discussion topic at the assembly’s meeting Monday, April 16 and may come up at a future meeting.

The two sales, Tonka on Kupreanof and Big Thorne on Prince of Wales, were the subject of a review completed by U.S. Forest Service staff from its Washington office in June of 2016. It was among a number of documents published last year by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. The Forest Service documents found millions of dollars of losses from the sales because timber companies did not cut lower value hemlock trees, but focused on more valuable cedar and spruce. The documents also noted problems with appraising the timber and oversight of the contracts.

Local resident David Beebe asked the assembly to pass a resolution requesting the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General to conduct a forensic audit of the sales.

“We understand that there is a strong well established history of timber theft on the Tongass and by all appearances this could also be happening currently,” Beebe said.

Both projects were stewardship sales, meaning the proceeds from the sale of timber were meant to stay on the Tongass and pay for other work in the sale area. In the case of Tonka that work was replacement of failing culverts, called red pipes, under forest roads along with tree thinning. Big Thorne was to fund trail work, tree thinning and fish habitat work. In both cases, the money from the sales was not meant to go into the payments to communities under the Secure Rural Schools Act. That was a conclusion in an earlier version of the proposed resolution. However, another local resident Becky Knight told the assembly the losses still impacted Petersburg.

“If the Forest Service had appraised what they actually did on the ground, Tonka would have been worth three million dollars instead of one million and they probably would have spent the bulk of the extra two million on local Petersburg or at least Kupreanof projects,” Knight told the assembly.

Following last year’s release of the documents by PEER, the Forest Service issued a statement saying the agency was making “updates to the appraisal process, improvements to timber sale administration, and updates to the process by which sales are developed and scheduled.” The agency also said it had come up with an action plan to address the review’s findings.

PEER also asked the Inspector General for a forensic audit of the sales last year. The response was the government did not have the resource available to initiate an audit on this issue at this time but would consider the topic in “future audit planning cycles.”

The proposed resolution expresses concern that timber sales the agency is planning may have similar losses if the problems are not corrected. It also asks the Congressional delegation to secure funds for an audit of the timber sales.

Assembly member Jeff Meucci said he’d have to dig into the statements in the resolution. “You know, it’s gonna take me a while to sort out whether or not all the whereases (in the resolution) are factual,” Meucci said. “I can’t vote to pass a resolution unless I’m comfortable that everything that’s on here is factual.”

Another member of the assembly Jeigh Stanton Gregor said he liked the revised version of the resolution better than the first draft and agreed there was some loss to the community. “In terms of the contract itself, that does impact Petersburg, it does,” Stanton Gregor said. “I don’t necessarily know how much but, it’s worth at this point I can’t see why it wouldn’t be worth asking. Myself I’m going to give this some more thought and hopefully speak with the parties that were here tonight and I’ll most likely be putting this on the next agenda.”

Mayor Mark Jensen wanted more documentation of the claims in the resolution and said he couldn’t support it at this time. And assembly member Eric Castro, a Forest Service employee, thought it was worth asking what work has happened on the stewardship contracts. “What has been accomplished or what hasn’t been in regards to these stewardship contracts like he had mentioned, these 38 red pipes that could have been fixed on Tonka,” Castro said,” you know I wasn’t in a position to be able to have any sort of authority on that contract but I’m aware of the road system and everything so I’m gonna look into that. I’m curious, myself, personal curiosity.”

The proposed resolution was only a discussion item at meetings this month but could be up for a vote in May.