A fishing boat heads north in the Wrangell Narrows beneath a clear cut on Kupreanof Island south of Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of Cindi Lagoudakis)

Petersburg’s assembly on a split vote Monday decided not to send a letter to U.S. Forest Service officials with questions about Tongass timber sales.
The letter was drafted to forest supervisor Earl Stewart and asked for specific changes that have been made to the administration, monitoring and enforcement of contracts for timber sales. It cited a 2016 review by staff in the Forest Service’s Washington office that noted harvesters were focusing on the more valuable trees, resulting in millions of dollars of lost value from the contracts for the Tonka sale near Petersburg and Big Thorne on Prince of Wales Island.

Local residents have been urging the assembly to pass a resolution on the topic, calling for an audit of Tongass sales by the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general. David Beebe urged more action by the assembly.

“This letter that replaces the resolution supporting the Washington office recommendations for an independent review by the inspector general is not sufficient, nor is it due diligence by the assembly to make sure that two million dollars of revenue lost won’t occur again,” Beebe said.

The assembly discussed a draft resolution in April but didn’t vote on it. Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor thought the letter was a good alternative.

“For myself I proposed this letter not because I don’t think the points raised in the resolution were valid, I asked myself, on any other issue, where would be my jumping off point and I thought a direct and respectful letter would be an appropriate place to start,” Stanton Gregor explained. “So I wanted to kind of capture the bones of what that resolution was.”

The Forest Service review of the sales was published last year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The organization also filed two lawsuits seeking additional information from the federal agency about appraisals of timber contracts and measures to fix problems with contract oversight. PEER says it’s received thousands of pages of Forest Service documents and communications but says it hasn’t seen evidence of change in sale oversight. The Forest Service says it is implementing a plan to address the Washington office review findings.

Mayor Mark Jensen was opposed to passing the resolution and didn’t support sending the letter either. “I don’t know if it’s in the best interest at this point for the borough to be involved in this, I wouldn’t call it an argument, but this discussion between groups, public groups and the Forest Service,” Jensen said. “I’d like to see how things transpire.”

Jensen and assembly member Nancy Strand voted against sending the letter and it failed on a 2-2 vote.