Watchdog group sues Forest Service for release of Tongass timber sales audit

A logged area on Kupreanof Island near Petersburg in 2013 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

A watchdog group hopes a lawsuit will shake loose more evidence of lost revenue from timber sales on the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The borough government in Petersburg has also sought answers about what’s been done to fix problems, with little response.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a Maryland-based national watchdog group for current and former public sector workers. In the past, it has published internal documents from the U.S. Forest Service that pointed to problems with oversight, transparency and accounting for timber contracts on Prince of Wales Island and near Petersburg.

In August, the group asked the Forest Service to release its audit of Tongass timber sales under the Freedom of Information Act. That request has yet to be fulfilled, and the group is asking the courts to enforce the law.

The group’s Pacific director, Jeff Ruch, expects the audit will confirm those earlier findings.

“We think it’s timely in that as you know there’s an effort to dramatically expand logging on the Tongass by repealing the Roadless Rule, and that if past is prologue and they’ve lost money on these earlier sales, you may be looking at a new gusher of red ink from new sales,” Ruch said.

Ruch thinks the financials from the audit also should have been included in the recent environmental analysis used to grant a full exemption of the Tongass from the Clinton administration’s Roadless Rule. A decision on opening up more areas of the Tongass to logging and roadbuilding is expected in the coming weeks.

Elected officials and residents in Petersburg have also asked about the extent of lost revenues from past timber sales and what’s been done to correct oversight with sale administration. Alaska regional forester Dave Schmid said last November in a public meeting that the audit was nearly complete. Nearly a year before that, he said the agency was responding to timber sale issues.

KFSK and others submitted Freedom of Information requests for that audit in 2019, but the agency has not produced it.

The Petersburg borough has also sent letters seeking answers, dating back to 2018. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen responded in May 2019 that the agency would share more information.

“We look forward to sharing with you those actions aimed to address any findings identified by the audit,” Christiansen wrote.

Appeals to the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General for a separate external review have so far been fruitless.

In 2016, staff with the Washington office of the Forest Service found, among other things, that timber companies are leaving behind lower value hemlock and cutting more of the high value cedar and spruce, which changes the economics of timber sales and how those are appraised and awarded.

George Woodbury of Wrangell is a board member for the Alaska Forest Association, an industry group.

“The reason it’s not being taken is because we got the long-term sales taken away and the pulp mills, so we don’t have the secondary manufacturing facilities,” Woodbury said. “We are no longer able to use everything that we were before. It’s the result of the environmental challenges and the fact that they shrunk the timber supply so much you can’t have an industry big enough to utilize all the wood.”

The Forest Service says it won’t comment on litigation. It referred inquiries to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to questions this month.

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