Alaskan officials waste taxpayer money weakening a rule that protects the Tongass: misuse of appropriated funds

The federal Office of the Inspector General is opening an investigation into how the U.S. Forest Service granted millions of dollars to the State of Alaska to work on a Roadless Rule decision in the Tongass National Forest.

In September, records requests obtained by Alaska’s Energy Desk showed the USDA gave the Alaska Division of Forestry $2 million, and from those funds $200,000 was paid to a timber industry group to provide additional input, and to analyze the volumes of economic old-growth harvests that would be made available after the rollback of the Roadless Rule in Alaska.

Federal dollars — typically used to prevent wildfires — were given to the state of Alaska to work on the Roadless Rule. The money was primarily spent on consultants and former State of Alaska foresters to study the opportunity for more old-growth timber harvests following the pending repeal of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass, but thousands of dollars was also spent on travel, outfitting the hired help with computers and software, and a 12.5 percent administrative fee charged by the Alaska Forest Association, according to invoices obtained through a public records request.

Commercial logging that began in 1950 on Prince of Wales devastated the forests; between 1954 and 2004, a shocking 94 percent of the “contiguous, high-volume old-growth was harvested. As young-growth conifer forests replace clear-cuts in accordance with the ecological principle of succession, the trees’ interlocking branches keep light from reaching the forest floor, where few plants are able to grow. Deer, along with most other wildlife, find little to eat in such forests. Clearcutting old growth and managing second growth on 100-to 120-year rotations significantly reduces foraging habitat for deer for 70%–80% of the timber rotation (Harris 1974, Wallmo and Schoen 1980, Alaback 1982). This situation has been described by Person et al. (2001) as “succession debt” because the full impacts to wildlife, particularly deer, may not immediately be expressed but will be sustained for many decades after timber harvesting.

In November, two Democractic members of Congress requested an investigation. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona questioned if the funds were misused. The money came from a modified federal grant typically used to prevent wildfires. Among other issues, Grijalva and Stabenow question whether the state’s awarding of federal grant funds to the Alaska Forest Association (AFA), which supports a full repeal of the Roadless Rule, was appropriate given other Tongass stakeholders allegedly did not receive similar funding.

The state spent the money in a variety of ways, but it drew criticism from tribal governments and environmental groups for offering some of the funds to the Alaska Forest Association — at a time when a major decision is being made that could impact logging in the nation’s largest national forest.

On March 14, 2019, Alaska Division of Forestry officials approved a sole-source contract with AFA President Bert Burkhart for up to $250,000 funded through a repurposed federal wildfire assistance grant to analyze the volumes of economic old-growth harvests that would be made available under varying proposals for a Tongass-specific Roadless Rule.

Governor Mike Dunleavy has sharply denied any misuse of funds.

The Office of Inspector General will determine if the Forest Service had the proper authority to award the $2 million grant to the state and confirm whether other stakeholders knew about it or not.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service has lost nearly $600 million over two decades through roadbuilding and timber sales in the Tongass National Forest.

As for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, one of the world’s rarest wolf subspecies, the islands that make up the Tongass National Forest are its only home in the United States.

For over 12,000 years, this unique subspecies has roamed Southeast Alaska’s rugged Alexander Archipelago—a 300-mile stretch of more than 1,000 islands mostly within the Tongass National Forest. But for just decades, the wolves of the archipelago have seen their old-growth forest habitat rapidly disappear. As the region’s controversial logging policies continue, a study examined what the wolves need in order to survive, and although hunting and trapping have the potential to eradicate wolves in the short-term, habitat loss from logging poses an even greater long-term challenge for wolf survival.

Sources:

Following a Request from Stabenow and Grijalva, USDA Inspector General to Investigate Grant Used to Weaken Protections for the Tongass National Forest

Invoices reveal how federal grant was used on ‘Roadless Rule’ work in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

USDA opens investigation into why Forest Service grant was given to Alaska to work on Roadless Rule

Related content:

Let It Be: Why We Must Save Alaska’s Pristine Tongass Forest

Speak up for ancient forests, wolves, and wildlife in Alaska

The Plight of the Alexander Archipelago Wolf
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