Feds propose Tongass old growth timber sale

The Viking Lumber Mill on Prince of Wales Island is one of the last operating big sawmills in Southeast Alaska. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

One of the largest old growth timber harvests in years has been proposed on Prince of Wales Island. The U.S. Forest Service says old growth logging would help fuel the local economy.

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But critics note it’s a reversal of the agency’s 2016 decision to phase out old-growth logging.

The latest Prince of Wales Island proposal envisions as much as 225 million board feet of old growth timber harvested.

At first blush, the Prince of Wales Island project looks big, said the Forest Service’s project manager Delilah Brigham in Thorne Bay. But it’s designed to be a gradual process.

“We’re looking at metering out timber harvest over 15 years,” Brigham said Tuesday. “So yes, the project does offer a larger amount of old growth but it’s not going to be harvested all right now within one year.”

The project would still dwarf the recent Big Thorne Project which was touted as offering nearly 150 million board feet of timber. Also unlike Big Thorne, this proposal doesn’t immediately identity specific areas to be logged. Rather, it covers a patchwork of Tongass National Forest lands on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands.

But Brigham said the purpose remains the same: feed demand of the local industry.

“We had a variety of comments from different sized mills across the project area saying that their businesses rely on a steady supply of timber,” Brigham said.

That’s been met with skepticism by critics.

“There’s no evidence that anything would be milled locally,” said Pat Lavin, an Anchorage-based representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group, opposing the plan. “At least that hasn’t been the trend, and isn’t what one would expect out of this sale, either. Most of the product is exported, unfortunately, and that would probably continue.”

The Forest Service has received push back over concerns about commercial logging’s effects on fish and wildlife habitat.

“Prince of Wales Island has been the site of some of the most intense logging over the past several decades,” said Austin Williams, of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska chapter. “The thrust of our comments were to encourage the Forest Service to really be mindful of impacts to fish and wildlife and to really find a way to move the timber program more towards young growth and away from this old growth logging.”

The Forest Service had considered other alternatives including cutting younger forests. Tongass Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart is the official who signed off on the environmental review and recommended the most aggressive logging plan. He’s unfazed by criticism, saying controversy is part of the process.

“You know, managing of competing interests from all the different programs and elements is always a challenge and is always difficult,” Stewart said.

The Forest Service will officially publish its draft decision on Saturday. That triggers a 45-day window for people to raise objections until mid-December. The agency then reviews those comments before forwarding a final decision to the regional forester’s office.