A Tongass National Forest clearcut is shown in this 2014 aerial view. A new court decision limits logging on roadless areas of the forest. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
A Tongass National Forest clearcut is shown in this 2014 aerial view. State biologists have expresses deer and wolf habitat concerns over Prince of Wales Island legacy of intense logging. (File photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Crews are spending the warmer months on Prince of Wales Island surveying vast areas of national forest land for potential logging.

It’s part of the first phase of the largest timber offering in Tongass National Forest in decades is moving ahead. And the U.S. Forest Service is asking for public comment through May 13.

The Forest Service’s has confirmed it plans to offer roughly 225 million board feet of Tongass old growth timber over 15 years. More than a fifth of that could be in the next year alone.

The federal agency insists this is much more than a timber sale.

“It’s not a timber sale,” Forest Service spokesman Paul Robbins Jr. in Ketchikan said. “That would be an inaccurate depiction of the project.”

Rather, the agency prefers calling it a “landscape level analysis” because it’s folded into other work. That includes stream restorations and culvert replacements. There’s also improved recreation like trail building and new public use cabins and shelters that has strong local support.

But this list of projects is largely aspirational. As in, they haven’t been funded. Meanwhile, the Forest Service has earmarked federal dollars for ongoing commercial timber surveys. It says it intends to offer 50 million board feet in the next year.

How much of that’s old growth vs. young growth? The Forest Service isn’t saying. But logging could begin as early as September when surveys are to wrap up.

Economic development in the Tongass is a key objective for the Forest Service even as it officially transitions away from old growth logging.

About half of Southeast Alaska’s timber industry jobs are on Prince of Wales. Rain Coast Data estimated that Prince of Wales Island had 175 timber industry jobs in 2017. And many argue that’s significant on an island with only 4,200 people.

“The largest of the mills on the island is only six miles down the road here and it has substantial amount of local employment,” said City of Craig’s administrator John Bolling.

He chairs the Prince of Wales Landscape Assessment Team that made recommendations to the Forest Service. It endorsed logging 220 million board feet of old growth over the next decade.

But at least a few on the advisory group dissented.

“People argue that that we would we need to maintain this very small logging industry to to maintain the economic viability of our communities — and I just flat out disagree,” said Bob Claus, a retired Alaska State Trooper who has lived on the island for decades.

Supporters and critics alike have registered their concern with the lack of detail offered to date by the Forest Service. There have been maps of units with potential logging and other activities but no specific plans.

Robbins says the Forest Service’s current process is new for everybody.

“Before we would say, ‘Hey, these are the activities we’re proposing to do,'” Robbins said. “And instead, now we’re saying, ‘What activities do you want to do? Okay, we’re going to go do those.'”

Critics say that makes meaningful engagement almost impossible.

“This turns the whole process on its head,” Claus said. “How can I make a reasonable comment about what they’re going to do, when they don’t have a plan as to what they’re going to do, or they’re not going to present it to me?”

Timber industry representative said there’s an understanding that a timber sale is in the works even if the details aren’t out yet.

“You know, when I talked to the timber sales staff, they said they had a project that they’re working on, a specific timber sale project with specific units,” said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association in Ketchikan.

He said he’s relying on these verbal assurances rather than site-specific plans released by the agency. So he’s not as concerned as logging critics.

“The Forest Service already knows is what we need is an economic timber supply that our mills can afford to harvest and make lumber out of it,” Graham said.

Decades of clear cutting on the island has taken its toll on habitat. That’s according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which outlined specific concerns for deer and wolf populations.

The Forest Service’s review acknowledges this in its formal record of decision. But that won’t stand in the way of commercial logging.

“We think Prince of Wales has just lost way too much habitat already,” said Buck Lindekugel, an environmental attorney for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

He says the Forest Service’s “landscape level analysis” fails to fulfill its legal obligations under the law.

“This is exactly the type of environmental blind decision-making that Congress intended to end when it passed the National Environmental Policy Act 50 years ago,” Lindekugel said. “So it’s not like these guys don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing — they’re just not doing it.”

The Forest Service is holding its last round of public workshops before it begins offering specific areas for logging and deciding which restoration and recreational projects to pursue.

“Those decisions are going to be made after the comment period’s done based on the information we gather,” Robbins said.