The Wrangell Narrows snakes north between Mitkof and Kupreanof islands near Petersburg, as seen from Crystal Mountain. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Plans are coming into focus for timber harvest, cabin construction, stream restoration and road building on the Tongass National Forest around Petersburg, Wrangell and Kake for the next 15 years. The U.S. Forest Service is taking comment for two more weeks on proposed work that could happen on national forest land in the area.

First things first, the name has changed. What used to be known as the Central Tongass Landscape Level Analysis has been shortened down to the Central Tongass Project.

“Easier for folks to say, easier to be written, that sort of thing so we thought let’s shorten it up,” said Carey Case, the agency’s project leader. Planners are looking at work that could happen on most of the 3.7 million acres on the Petersburg and Wrangell ranger districts. For the Central Tongass project and a similar one on Prince of Wales Island, the Forest Service is taking a different approach to environmental analysis required under federal law.

“Typically when we do a project we say, right here just like this, this is how it’s going to happen,” Case explained. “And then if conditions are different on the ground, we’re not always able to react to that. If there’s something outside of what we’ve thought of, you know we go back and we do NEPA again. With this we’re looking at a range of conditions that could be occurring for each of these activities, so that when we get to implementation we can consider how to best implement each of these different kinds of projects.”

NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the agency to look at potential impacts from development on forest land. The planning is still in its early stages and the proposal has been short on specifics, identifying only what kind of projects the agency hopes to pursue. In documents published in August the Forest Service has provided some numbers and general locations for the work. For instance, the agency is proposing logging 150 million board feet of old growth timber on the two ranger districts over 15 years, along with an additional 80 million board feet of young growth. Case explained the Forest Service will use comments from the public to develop other alternatives for environmental analysis.

“So if they’re seeing say 150 million board feet of timber harvest, if folks would like to see something different than that, that’s something to comment on and then we develop an alternative that could reflect that,” she said. “So we look at issues that come up during public comments, based on that information in the proposed action, so how many cabins we’re proposing to decommission, to build, amount of trail, stream restoration opportunities. If folks are wanting to see something different, that’s a great thing to comment on and things that can’t be resolved become issues and then we develop an alternative to address that.”

Also part of the proposal is the possibility of relaxing so called “scenic integrity objectives” for a number of areas. Case explains those are standards for how natural an area looks, the level of disturbance that could be seen there and what’s allowed for timber harvest. Near Petersburg those areas are at Portage Bay, near Falls Creek and on Three Lakes Loop Road, Woodpecker Cove and Snake Ridge as well as northern and eastern Zarembo Island. The aim would be to relax those standards so timber harvest could be done at a cheaper cost to timber companies.

“We’re looking at making this whole project economic,” said Petersburg district ranger Dave Zimmerman. “So we wouldn’t approach that project specific amendment unless we needed to to make a project economical.”

The change would require an amendment to the forest plan for the Tongass, specific to this project only. It could mean clear cut logging in an area that normally wouldn’t be designated for that, or how visible the logging would be. The agency is also proposing construction of 24 miles of new permanent roads, 88 miles of temporary roads and reconstruction of 63 miles of existing logging roads. New log transfer facilities are also planned on the two districts and some specific locations are provided for those.

However for most of the work, specific locations are not yet proposed. But the project may mean restoration work on over 60 miles of streams damaged by past logging, road building or other development. Other work would fix or replace road culverts that are blocking fish passage. And planners are looking at invasive plant removal.

Other proposals are for construction of six new recreation cabins, six wildlife viewing platforms and 10 dispersed camp sites. There could also be 300 miles of new hiking trails, 60 miles of motorized trails and 105 miles of winter trails built. At the same time the Forest Service could look at decommissioning other cabins or converting cabins to shelters.

Case said the Forest Service is looking for public input on what’s proposed, even though specifics are still scarce. “It’s really hard because people are like well I wanna know about this certain road, you know I hunt on, it’s where I access subsistence berry picking things like that,” Case said. “And my answer is we’re going to get there. It’s just we’re doing things a little bit differently.”

A draft environmental impact statement for the Central Tongass project, now expected out sometime next spring.

There are two meetings on the project here in Petersburg Thursday, September 13 from noon to 2 and 5-7 p.m. at the Holy Cross House of the Lutheran Church. Other public input meetings were held in Wrangell and Kake this month. A 45-day comment period runs through September 24th.