The Dunleavy administration is defending how it spent federal grant funds as it was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider a rollback of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
Last week, two Democratic members of Congress requested an investigation into why some of the grant funds were used to pay an Alaska timber industry group for additional input while an important federal rule — one that could open up areas to logging — was being examined.
But the state maintains it spent the money appropriately.
The money was given to the state of Alaska by the USDA in 2018, after the state got a “yes” on a longstanding ask to reexamine — and possibly exempt — the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule.
It received the money as a cooperating agency on the decision.
The state used more than $200,000 of that federal grant money, typically designated for fire prevention, to pay an industry group for more perspective on economic timber sales.
On Nov. 18, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., requested an investigation, seeking more details about “potential misuse” of those federal funds.
In their request, they said the Tongass is “essential to addressing the climate crisis. It is critical that we ensure this taxpayer funded grant was properly awarded and used.”
“We see no misuse of funds,” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy on a phone call from Florida, where he’s attending the annual Republican Governors Association meeting.
Like the state, the Organized Village of Kake was also a cooperating agency providing important feedback on the Roadless Rule decision. Tribal government President Joel Jackson opposes large-scale logging in the Tongass.
From the grant money the state received, the Organized Village of Kake got some travel funds to be able to participate. Jackson estimates it was a few thousand dollars.
Still, he said, they struggled with limited staffing to be able to make meaningful comments.
He said whether the money was administered and divided up legally or not isn’t the entire point.
“We don’t view the process as being fair,” Jackson said.
Ben Stevens, the governor’s chief of staff, reiterated there’s no evidence to support the claim that funds were misused.
“There’s none,” Stevens said. “And so whether it’s fair or not doesn’t — we don’t understand what that means. If there’s anybody, any another entity, that could have done that economic analysis, we’d be happy to hear who it is and have them come forward.”
The entity is the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group.
Alaska’s Energy Desk obtained documents through state and federal records requests that show how some of the $2 million given to the state was spent.
Funds were used to help facilitate a conversation about the Roadless Rule.
Former Gov. Bill Walker appointed a diverse group of stakeholders. The committee came up with a menu of six options for the Tongass to be considered by Agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue.
Later, the Alaska Forest Association was offered contracts to add additional industry perspective: analyzing the six alternatives and providing an economic analysis of the timber.
The group has received over $200,000 so far from the grant.
A press release from the state Department of Natural Resources says it hasn’t billed the U.S. Forest Service for the work yet. It could still use the state match for that.
Stevens said it makes sense the Alaska Forest Association would do this work.
“They’re the ones that know the value of the timber industry there,” Stevens said.
The request for an investigation into how the federal funds were spent is set against the backdrop of the Forest Service now seeking a full exemption of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
The decision has been met with some skepticism in the public Forest Service meetings throughout Southeast Alaska. People have questioned the agency about the state’s influence in the process, largely drawing on a Washington Post report that suggested — at Dunleavy’s urging — President Donald Trump directed the secretary of Agriculture to select the full exemption.
Dunleavy said he has talked with the president about the Tongass.
“So any conversations I’ve had with the president and asking questions, if he’s asked questions about the Tongass forest, ‘How can we help Alaska?’ etc., my response was to get it back to being operated as a national forest,” Dunleavy said. “The Roadless Rule doesn’t necessarily help that forest act like a national forest. It makes it act more like a preserve or a national park.”
The USDA Office of the Inspector General has 60 days, upon notice of the request, to issue a response about whether it will be pursuing the investigation that the two members of Congress have asked for.
As for the Organized Village of Kake, they sent an email to the Forest Service recently saying they no longer want to be a cooperating agency.
The Forest Service declined to comment for this story.