Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday voted to send a letter to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service asking the federal agency to fix problems with oversight and administration of timber sales on the Tongass National Forest. Area residents who have been pushing the municipal government to take a stance on the issue said this letter did not go far enough.
A 2016 review by Forest Service staff in Washington D.C. noted that timber companies did not cut lower value trees in two contracts for logging and stewardship work on Kupreanof and Prince of Wales islands. Among other things, that review recommended the federal agency improve its oversight, transparency and accounting for timber contracts. It noted the practice resulted in millions of dollars lost that could have gone toward habitat restoration, stream work or culvert repair or other contract work on the Tongass. The review was published by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, a nationwide watchdog group based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Area residents have been asking the borough assembly to follow up on that review and seek answers from the Forest Service. Last month the assembly voted against a resolution calling for an audit of the sales. The assembly in May also was against sending a different letter on the topic.
This latest letter requests information on what the agency has done to correct problems in timber sale oversight that led to the loss of contract value.
Several commenting said the letter was not enough. Joe Sebastian called the issues identified in the review “more than administrative deficiencies.”
“Somehow the high grading of rare and valuable trees on the Petersburg borough did not interest this assembly,” Sebastian said. “They passed on sending a letter of inquiry to the Forest Service. They passed on requesting a forensic audit of the sale. This assembly chose negligence over accountability. Now, a watered down letter scented with Kool-Aid has been drafted as a tepid response to a serious crime. The softball letter looks more like buying into the ongoing cover-up and less like the assembly doing its duty of borough oversight and management.”
Others say the assembly needs to hear answers from Forest Service officials, especially in light of new sales being planned.
Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor drafted the prior letter that was voted down and last month’s resolution and called this latest attempt a starting point.
“Although I think the letter may be lacking in some ways, it’s a good jumping off point,” Stanton Gregor said. “I hate to use the words better than nothing but it’s a place to start from and if we aren’t satisfied with the results from this we can potentially revisit some of the other avenues so I’ll be voting for this today.”
This letter is addressed to Forest Service chief Vicky Christiansen and will also be sent to Forest Service officials on the Tongass and the borough’s lobbyist in the nation’s capital.
The letter says, “If there is an internal review being done, we would urge that it be brought to a rapid conclusion so that the Tongass National Forest Staff can follow up and correct the deficiencies.” It goes on to ask for information about follow up that the agency has done.
Bob Lynn, who is retired from a 30-year career with the Forest Service, drafted this version of the letter and explained his thinking. “I’d like to know for myself you know where really are these folks at and what actions have been taken, rather than to accuse them, because I don’t know,” Lynn said. “And so I thought it was an excellent place to start and as you heard earlier I think we can go farther later but I think we need to have a starting point and see what kind of response we can get back. I’m not in the accusatory mode to anybody. I just like to know the facts first.”
The organization PEER has sued for and received thousands of Forest Service documents and communications. But a PEER attorney this year said they have not found evidence that the agency is correcting the problems. Last year, the agency responded to PEER’s release of documents saying the Forest Service prepared an action plan to address the review’s findings and was implementing that plan. The Forest Service said it had updated the appraisal process and administration of timber sales.
By voice vote, the assembly agreed 6-0 to send Lynn’s letter asking for information.