The chief of the U.S. Forest Service has responded to the Petersburg borough that the federal agency is conducting an audit of the timber program on national forest land in the Alaska Region.
Vicki Christiansen’s May 8th letter to borough mayor Mark Jensen apologizes for a delayed response. It also says the National Forest system’s acting deputy chief Christopher French on April 20, 2018 requested a formal audit of the Alaska Region’s timber program, including timber cruise and appraisals. Christiansen writes a team of auditors have “conducted a thorough review of timber sale documents and interview Agency personnel” and plans to report on findings.
The borough sent two letters to Christiansen, the first one in November and a second one last month. In between the municipality emailed the federal agency but received no response until now. Both sought information on what follow-up actions have been taken since the agency’s 2016 review of the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island and Tonka sale on Kupreanof Island. That internal Forest Service 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.
Christiansen’s letter to the borough says the agency will be reviewing the results of the audit and making changes “if warranted.”
Meanwhile the Forest Service chief last week also responded to questions on timber offerings from U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski during an Interior Appropriation subcommittee hearing on the budget for the federal agency. Murkowski, chair of that subcommittee, took aim at areas put off limits to logging by the most recent forest plan amendment and the nationwide Roadless Rule.
“These have all come together to contribute to a shrinking land base that makes it difficult to actually practice active forest management,” Murkowski said. “I think this last planning round has pushed the Forest Service over the edge and even in the best of circumstances implementation is failing to produce sufficient timber in terms of volume to sustain the industry and the communities.”
Christiansen responded to Murkowski that the Forest Service has lands for timber offerings in the short term, namely the next 15-25 years. She pointed to planning efforts for timber offerings on Prince of Wales Island as well as the Petersburg and Wrangell area.
“I just spoke with our regional forester here in the last week and they’ve made the shifts and they have 40 million board feet and it being old growth, predominately old growth to put up for sale,” Christiansen said.
Conservation groups this spring sued to block one of those projects, The Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis. The agency has proposed old growth harvest of 25 million board feet annually for the first five years. Another 10 million board feet a year could come from the Central Tongass Project being planned around Petersburg and Wrangell. In the long-term Christiansen told Murkowski the Forest Service is working on amendments to the Tongass forest plan that would open more areas of the forest to logging.