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New Southeast Alaska timber sale met with lawsuit from environmental groups

Pat Forgey
The multiyear Big Thorne timber sale on Southeast's Prince of Wales island would harvest tens of millions of board feet of timber, much of it old growth. Xa'at via Flickr

JUNEAU -- After being dormant for years, the Tongass timber wars that once wracked Southeast Alaska may be reigniting.

The U.S. Forest Service is now proposing its biggest timber sale in decades.

The multiyear Big Thorne sale on Southeast's Prince of Wales island would harvest tens of millions of board feet of timber, much of it controversial and essentially irreplaceable old growth.

Environmental groups represented by the law firm Earthjustice have responded with the organization's first timber lawsuit since 2009. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and other groups say the Big Thorne will hurt deer habitat, and that both local hunters and the Alexander Archipelago wolf rely on deer from the 5,800-acre timber sale area, while the Forest Service says the biggest threat to the important wolf is hunting and trapping, not timber harvest.

The larger issue, however, is a battle over the transition away from old growth harvest. That's something on which all sides are in broad agreement -- but when it happens is still in debate.

A Southeast Alaska Conservation Council spokesman, Daven Hafey, said the group was disappointed to see a sale the size of the Big Thorne come along.

"We've actually been having some pretty constructive conversations with the Forest Service for the past few years about what the Tongass transition is going to look like," Hafey said.

"After several years of having those conversations the Big Thorne came along, and its a pretty high volume of old growth," he said.

Conversations between the Forest Service and SEACC were part of the Tongass Futures Roundtable, but that effort fell apart earlier when advocates of more logging pulled out.

While Southeast once had a thriving timber industry, anchored by pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka and with many logging companies and sawmills, today there is only a single, medium-sized mill left, and several mom-and-pop operations.

That medium-sized mill is Viking Lumber of Klawock. State forestry officials who support the Big Thorne sale say it could keep Viking operating for several years.

Big Thorne is expected to last 10 years and begin with 100 million board feet of timber, but it could be extended, according to the Forest Service.

SEACC and other Big Thorne critics say they want to see smaller sales targeted at Alaskan buyers such as those smaller mills. What they don't want to see is sales such as Big Thorne that allow up to half the harvest volume to be exported "in the round," or as unprocessed logs.

"Big Thorne will export long-term jobs for short-term profits, and do so at a completely unsustainable rate. That’s not progress," said Malena Marvin, SEACC's executive director.

The legal action Friday by Earthjustice, representing SEACC, the Sierra Club, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, includes two separate lawsuits.

One seeks to protect the habitat of the Alexander Archipelago wolf by blocking the sale. It says that the Prince of Wales wolf population depends on the Sitka black-tail deer, while the deer needs old-growth forest for winter habitat.

The Forest Service has not yet responded to the lawsuit, which also seeks an injunction, but has said earlier that its environmental studies adequately analyzed impacts on the wolf.

Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole was not available Friday, but he told Ketchikan radio station KRBD that while logging plans had been altered to protect the wolf, the best way to help the population was through reduced hunting and trapping.

He said studies show that 87 percent of wolves killed were due to those activities and that both state and federal fish and game officials were working on stricter limits on wolf hunting.

The second lawsuit challenges the Tongass Timber Land Management Plan, under which the Big Thorne sale was offered, saying the plan itself doesn't adequately protect deer habitat.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com.