ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — After two-and-a-half years of input and evaluation, the U.S. Forest Service has signed a record of decision for a project on Prince of Wales Island and adjacent islands.
While the project includes popular improvements including more than 200 miles of riparian work on streams, three new cabins, a dozen shelters and wildlife habitat improvement, the decision to allow logging of old-growth timber has drawn criticism from conservation groups.
Of the Tongass National Forest's approximately 17 million acres, the Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis project includes around 1.8 million acres.
"It's an exceedingly large effort, a very large scale. It involves all the communities on Prince of Wales and their comments along with the public process," Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart said. "It's a holistic effort to recognize all resources and all resources needs."
A group of community members formed the Prince of Wales Landscape Assessment Team to provide recommendations to the forest service. Stewart says the forest service also took feedback from the public, local tribes and other agencies.
The project will allow up to 25 million board feet of old-growth timber to be logged during each of the first five years. During the next five year period, up to 15 million board feet of old growth timber could be logged. The allowable amount of timber would be reconsidered after 10 years, but the current plan would allow the forest service to offer up to 10 million board feet of old-growth timber in years 11 and 12 of the plan. The following three years, the forest service would allow no more than 5 million board feet of old-growth timber to be logged.
Stewart says old-growth timber would account for a third of the logging.
Certain limitations exist, including prohibiting old-growth logging north of the 20 Road or within VCU 5280. Stewart also decided to limit the size of any harvest area to 100 acres, "to protect wildlife resources by reducing habitat connectivity loss and fragmentation to address wildlife corridor concerns from past harvest in the project area."
Once a draft of the decision was published for the project, 15 individuals and organizations submitted written objections regarding the project.
Groups including Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Earthjustice, Trout Unlimited, Audobon Alaska and others argued against parts of the project ranging from the impact on fish and wildlife habitat to the quality of scientific information the forest service used to come to its decision.
The Alaska Forest Association, which represents more than 100 members with an interest in the Tongass and Southeast Alaska timber industry, objected to the decision to limit openings to 100 acres and prohibit commercial harvests from the two specified areas. The AFA called the limits "unnecessary constraints" because the decision would not allow timber companies to salvage blown down timber in the areas.
You can read each objection and the forest service's response here.
Stewart says while most of the dialogue has focused on logging, the Prince of Wales project as a whole will benefit the communities on the island, and the forest service is mandated to manage land for multiple uses.
"It's really about multiple uses. Utilizing the forest in a long term, sustainable way and recognizing that it does have a compatibility for those communities and for the economies and for the future of those communities across it," Stewart said. "I think this gives us the opportunity to stabilize the multiple influences on Prince of Wales over the next 10 to 15 years, and I think it does it in a fully integrated way."