The Petersburg borough assembly will try again to get some answers about timber sale oversight and administration on the Tongass National Forest. The assembly Monday voted unanimously to send a second letter to U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen seeking information about the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island and the Tonka sale on Kupreanof Island.
This April 16 letter follows one sent by the municipality last November. Both are asking for the federal agency to detail what follow-up actions have been taken since the 2016 review of those two sales by staff with Forest Service’s Washington office. That review was published in 2017 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, a nationwide watchdog group based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Among other findings, it noted that timber companies did not cut lower value trees resulting in millions of dollars lost that could have gone toward habitat restoration, stream work or culvert repair or other contract work on the Tongass. It recommended improving oversight, transparency and accounting for timber contracts.
Local David Beebe has pushed for the assembly to pass a more strongly worded resolution and called this yet another tepid letter to the chief of the Forest Service.
“The Petersburg borough is not only due an apology from the chief of the Forest Service, it is due assurances of institutional reform and professional accountability and it is certainly due full reparations of past monetary losses while facing a protracted state and borough fiscal crisis,” Beebe told the assembly.
Beebe, PEER and others have sought an audit of the timber sales by the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general. The assembly in October voted down against a resolution seeking such an audit, opting for sending the November letter simply asking for information instead.
Another local resident Bill Tremblay, retired from the U.S. Forest Service and KFSK board president, said he has read the reports released in 2017 on the two timber sales.
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Tremblay said. “It shouldn’t be rocket science for them to come up with the information regarding the projects that were planned with that money and the projects that were completed or the ones that were not completed. These were promises that were made in their stewardship contracts to the communities to get these things done. We’re talking about improvements to roads for access, as well as improving fish culverts for fish passage, stand improvements out there after they got done doing things up there. It’s irresponsible for them not to come to us with that information about what was done, what wasn’t done and how it’s going to be resolved.”
Both sales were integrated resource contracts, meaning the money from selling the timber was meant to pay for habitat restoration and other work in the area.
Local residents also noted the Forest Service is offering and planning more timber sales on Prince of Wales and around Petersburg without any indication that the agency has fixed problems with sale oversight and administration.
The borough sent its November letter and followed up with an email in January but has received no response.
In a December radio interview, new regional forester Dave Schmid said the agency initiated an internal review in response to the Washington office review. Schmid said he takes the issue seriously and he said the agency did respond to the borough’s letter. However, the borough has yet to receive any response.
Officials with the Forest Service in Washington D.C. only would say they are coordinating their response to the borough but otherwise would give no information about the federal agency’s lack of reply.
The Petersburg assembly agreed to send a second letter this month. However, assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor said he planned to follow up with a resolution from the borough in a month or two, if there’s still no reply.
“I think it’s appropriate at this point to take stronger action,” Stanton Gregor said. “It feels like we’ve been stone walled for the last six months on that. Frankly I want to put this issue to bed. If we are owed stewardship contracts, monies, etc, many of the things people spoke to, we should know. And they’ve spoken that these problems have been rectified. Where I wrestle with it, if they’ve been rectified why can’t they just tell us how. And that does give me pause and frustrates me because these are jobs for our community. I wrestle with voting yes on the letter because I’m feeling stubborn and would rather do a resolution but I’m going to vote yes today.”
The vote was 7-0 to send that second letter, with the first attached. It will also be copied to the Congressional delegation and Petersburg’s lobbyist in Washington D.C.