Congressional Democrats ask for investigation into Alaska use of forest grant
A pair of federal lawmakers are asking for an investigation into Alaska’s use of a U.S. Forest Service grant to analyze timber harvest prospects if the Roadless Rule is lifted from the Tongass National Forest, but Dunleavy administration officials insist the request is baseless political move.
Michigan Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Arizona Democrat Rep. Raúl Grijalva sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong Nov. 18 urging her to investigate “the potential misuse” of a $2 million U.S. Forest Service wildfire assistance grant to the State of Alaska.
The letter references a Sept. 24 Alaska Public Media news report that indicated at least some of the grant was used to offer input on the Forest Service’s work to develop an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule and not on fire suppression efforts. The IG has 60 days to respond to the letter.
Grijalva chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and Stabenow is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
Former Gov. Bill Walker requested the USDA and the Forest Service work on exempting the Tongass from the rule, which largely prohibited new road building in undeveloped national forest lands, after numerous failed attempts through the courts to get the state exempted or the rule repealed entirely .
USDA officials announced Oct. 15 their preference to fully repeal the Roadless Rule from the nearly 17 million-acre Tongass ahead of the release of the draft environmental impact statement written for the work, which was published a few days later.
A full exemption would open more of the 9.2 million acres currently classified as roadless to development activities, such as mining, logging, and energy development, all of which are made more economic with road access. A public comment period on the draft Alaska Roadless Rule EIS is open through Dec. 17.
The Roadless Rule exemption would only apply to the Tongass; the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska historically has not been used for large-scale timber harvests.
Local and national conservation groups as well as several Southeast Tribal organizations have said the land-use policy reversal ignores the economic transformation that has occurred in Southeast Alaska over the nearly 20 years since the Roadless Rule was put in place. They contend fishing and tourism — industries boosted by intact wild lands — have largely filled the void left by the region’s dwindling timber industry.
The lawmakers’ letter notes Alaska’s request to modify an existing wildfire grant does not indicate the money would be used for fire suppression work.
According to grant records, state Department of Natural Resources officials in August 2018 asked for $2 million to work on the Alaska-specific Roadless Rule in addition to $3 million requested earlier under a state fire assistance grant.
The letter also questions whether awarding some of the grant money to the Alaska Forest Association, which supports a full repeal of the Roadless Rule, was appropriate given other stakeholders allegedly did not receive similar funding.
They specifically asked the Inspector General’s Office to investigate whether using the $2 million on the Roadless Rule was appropriate for fire assistance grant program funding; whether any funding was available to other Tongass stakeholders; and if it is permissible for the a state to use Forest Service funds to help convince the USDA, of which the Forest Service is a subagency, to make a regulatory change requested by the state.
“The Tongass is our largest National Forest and is essential to addressing the climate crisis. It is critical that we ensure this taxpayer funded grant was properly awarded and used,” Stabenow and Grijalva wrote.
Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy issued a sharp response to the pair Nov. 20.
“The grant was appropriate and legal; all the information anyone needs to reach the same conclusion is readily available to the public,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “I respectfully suggest Congressman Grijalva and Sen. Stabenow do their homework before asking a federal agency to conduct a costly, time-consuming and ultimately pointless investigation into a grant that will provide essential information about lifting the Roadless Rule. Exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will create new jobs and economic activity in a region hit hard by the misguided policies of a previous administration.”
On March 14, Alaska Forest Association board of directors President Bert Burkhart signed a cooperative agreement with the Alaska Division of Forestry under which the state would provide up to $250,000 for the AFA to use in drafting an economic analysis of the amount of timber made available for harvest in each of the alternatives included in the Roadless Rule EIS, which was published approximately six months later.
According to the agreement, the funding came from the 2018 Roadless Rule Modification to the Forestry Division’s Consolidated Payment Grant issued by the State and Private Forestry Organization of the Forest Service.
Burkhart referred questions about the grant to DNR officials when contacted by the Journal at Local Manufacturing Inc., an Aberdeen, Wash., lumber mill.
AFA Executive Director Owen Graham also declined to comment for this story.
However, a source involved in the matter said Burkhart negotiated the agreement directly with DNR officials and contracted with Terra Verde Inc., a La Center, Wash., environmental services firm to conduct the actual timber analysis.
A Terra Verde representative said he could not comment on the company’s work without prior consent from a client.
DNR spokesman Dan Saddler wrote via email that Jim Eleazer, a state forester, negotiated the contract with representatives from the Forest Assocation.
The Division of Forestry did not solicit proposals to conduct the timber analysis through a formal process, according to Saddler; the cooperative agreement cites a section of the Division of Forestry’s enabling statute that gives the DNR commissioner the ability to enter into contracts and agreements with subject matter experts.
A Nov. 20 statement from DNR says that Forestry “in 2018 accepted a modification to an annual forest programs grant” from the Forest Service.
Saddler wrote that the analysis being conducted by the Alaska Forest Association is technical in nature and requires interpretation of forest plan standards to determine how much timber would be available for harvest under the varying Alaksa-specific Roadless Rule environmental impact statement alternatives.
"It must be stressed, AFA is not making any recommendations to the state on what alternative is the preferred; it is simply providing analysis of data concerning each specific alternative," Saddler wrote. "Simpluy put, the state asked a question: How much net positive timber will each alternative produce?"
DNR officials denied a public records request for the materials produced by the Forest Association, citing deliberative process privilege. The work product will be used to inform the state's comments on the draft Alaska Roadless Rule EIS and disclosing it now "might hinder the candid decision making of a state agency," according to Saddler.
As to whether other Tongass stakeholder groups got funding to help them participate in the process, DNR Commissioner Corri Feige said in the Nov. 20 statement that the Organized Village of Kake — a Tribal government that is a cooperating agency in the EIS process and has opposed repealing the Roadless Rule — received travel funds as part of the federal grant as well.
Kake is a community of about 600 on Kupreanof Island in the central portion of the Tongass.
Kake Council President Joel Jackson wrote in testimony for a Nov. 13 hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands that Southeast Alaska tribes “received no money to participate in the process as cooperating agencies, nor did they have their resources, expertise or staff time reimbursed.”
“The process was designed to shut us out,” Jackson wrote in his committee testimony, adding that Kake has decided to withdraw as a cooperating agency in the Roadless Rule EIS as a result.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].