Forest Service chief makes quiet visit to Tongass National Forest

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen visited Naukati July 6 on Prince of Wales Island where the forest service completed a land swap with the Alaska Mental Health Trust. (Photo courtesy of Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently hosted the U.S. Forest Service’s top official in a flying visit to Tongass National Forest. The delegation kept a low profile during its visit to Southeast Alaska.

Back in a mid-May budget hearing, Murkowski quizzed Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. She wanted to know why recent timber sales in Tongass National Forest had no takers.

And what was the Forest Service doing about it?

“It is a challenge and I’d be glad to work with you more even come up to Alaska that we can roll up our sleeves and really look at this,” Christiansen replied.

Murkowski — who chairs the powerful Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee — acted on this opening.

“I welcome you up to this state any time summer, winter, spring fall,” she said.

Christiansen chose summer. She spent July 6 and 7 in Wrangell, Ketchikan and Prince Wales Island as part of a flying visit with Alaska’s senior senator.

At a Saturday morning meeting in Wrangell, the delegation heard from the timber industry and its boosters.

“There was discussion about making sure that we’re able to keep the one remaining mill in Southeast, operational,” Wrangell Borough Manager Lisa Von Bargen told CoastAlaska on Friday.

That would be Viking Lumber Mill on Prince of Wales Island which employees a few dozen people.

“And they’re struggling to get enough wood to keep going,” said Frank Roppel, a veteran figure in Southeast Alaska’s logging industry who sat in on the meeting.

The octogenarian was a top Alaska Pulp Corporation executive. In its day, the company was a top regional employer, operating a sawmill in Wrangell and a pulp mill Sitka from the 1950s until the 90s.

Roppel told CoastAlaska that the forest service chief asked good questions and was receptive to concerns over timber supplies for commercial logging.

“We were encouraged that there’s some interest and willingness to try and help the industry,” he said.

The exclusive gathering in Wrangell included about 10 business people and civic leaders and discussed the Trump administration’s controversial effort at crafting an exemption from the 2001 Roadless rule that would allow logging in more undeveloped parts of the Tongass.

But at a roundtable of tribal leaders in Ketchikan the delegation heard a different perspective.

“We prefer that there is no change the forest plan and I think most of the tribes are going that way,” said Ronald Leighton, president of the Organized Tribe of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island.

He says he used the audience with the Forest Service delegation to press for preferential access to old growth red cedar for traditional carvers.

“When we did our longhouse we were having trouble finding quality cultural logs for that,” he said. “So, in fact, we had to buy from Sealaska.”

None of the meetings were publicized in advance. The visit was only announced nearly a week later in a July 12 press release.

But if it had been, the delegation would likely have gotten an earful from opponents to old growth logging in the Tongass.

“We’re really sorry that Lisa Murkowski and chief Christiansen missed the Turnout for the Tongass Rally on June 22 in Juneau where 150 Alaskans turned out in support of the national roadless rule,” said Dan Cannon, Tongass Forest program manager for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, an environmental group.

Past public hearings and written comments have been overwhelmingly supportive of keeping the roadless protections for approximately 9.2 million acres in place.

The Forest Service is expected to hold public hearings to a draft environmental impact statement for an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule later this year.

“I would hope that Chief Christensen comes back during the public comments and the public meetings to actually hear from Alaskans,” Cannon said, “and travel to places beyond Ketchikan and Wrangell and go to Juneau go to Sitka and hear from larger swath of Southeast Alaskans.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, right, talk with Kirk Dahlstrom at the Viking Lumber mill in Klawock in 2018. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

The delegation also visited Naukati on Prince of Wales Island where the Forest Service completed a landswap with the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

There was a Saturday visit to Staney Creek where the delegation met with the local branch of The Nature Conservancy which has partnered with the agency to undertake watershed restoration.

“We talked about past work and collaboration between the Nature Conservancy in the Forest Service,” said Michael Kampnich, the nonprofit’s field representative on Prince of Wales Island.

Commercial logging didn’t come up in those discussions, he said.

The trip was almost exactly a year after Sen. Murkowski brought Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to tour the Viking Lumber mill on Prince of Wales Island. That visit had the usual fanfare with media in tow.

This time around, the Forest Service chief opted to keep a low profile in Alaska. But why?

“This was a relationship building visit with Senator Murkowski in the State of Alaska,” Babete Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. said in a statement in response to questions from CoastAlaska.

Tonya Parish, a spokeswoman for the Senate committee that organized the trip, said in a statement that current protocol is to almost never give advance notice of visiting high-ranking officials and that the itinerary didn’t allow for public meetings or media interviews.

She declined further comment.

With additional reporting from KFSK’s Joe Viechnicki in Petersburg.