Newly released documents show the Trump administration has struck an unusual deal with the state of Alaska and the state’s timber industry, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars so logging companies can help pick which mature trees should be cut in an upcoming sale in the Tongass National Forest.
The contract has the U.S. Forest Service providing up to $300,000 annually, for up to five years, for the state to pay the Alaska Forestry Association to scope out which trees can be logged via helicopter over 14,000 acres. The trees will be part of a 1.8 million-acre sale on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
The plan is just one of several ways the Trump administration is changing logging nationwide.
Earthjustice staff attorney Tom Waldo said in an interview that federal experts – not the logging industry itself – should identify the trees, since they are charged with balancing the forest’s commercial appeal with protecting its overall health and the species within it. Earthjustice, which is challenging the sale on the grounds that the Forest Service has failed to fully inform the public about it, obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act and provided them to The Washington Post.
“Here they’re vesting a really lot of power in the hands of someone with a very specific interest in the timber,” Waldo said. “The very best trees for logging are also the best trees for wildlife habitat.”
But Alaska State Forester John “Chris” Maisch said in an email that the logging site was selected during the Obama administration, underwent extensive environmental review and any final decisions are made by government officials. The Forest Service staff lacks the expertise to pick the trees that are both commercially appealing and can be safely felled and lifted via helicopter, he said.
Industry foresters are working with Forest Service staff “in the units and are not doing this work independently,” Maisch said.
“It’s a team effort with experienced foresters passing this skill set to the next generation,” he said, adding that protections are put in place if trees with bird nests “or other sensitive habitat is identified.”
Neither the Forest Service nor the Alaska Forest Association responded to requests for comment.
Last year, the Trump administration proposed allowing logging on more than half of the 16.7 million-acre Tongass in southeast Alaska, despite concerns about fragmenting animal habitat and undermining the region’s bustling tourism industry. The move would reverse long-standing limits on tree cutting in the Tongass instituted under Bill Clinton.
The Forest Service also put forward in June a sweeping set of proposed rule changes that would expedite environmental reviews required for logging on not just Alaska’s public lands, but throughout the Lower 48.
Yet when speaking publicly, Trump often touts the importance of preserving forests. Just last week, the president pledged to join the One Trillion Tree initiative, which is aimed at combating climate change through planting saplings.
“In doing so we will continue to show strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and our forests,” Trump told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The kind of helicopter logging being considered for Prince of Wales Island requires less road building than traditional logging because felled trees are lifted in bundles out of the forest. According to the documents, the timber association is receiving more than 86% of the funds the Forest Service is paying the state for the work.
One of the pacts, dubbed a “challenge cost share agreement,” also makes it clear federal officials see logging old-growth trees on the country’s largest national forest as a way to bolster struggling timber companies in southeast Alaska.
“The U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Division of Forestry agree that maintaining a viable forest products industry is critical for maintaining a healthy regional economy,” it states.
Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, said it is understandable that the Forest Service wants to tap the expertise of those in the private sector. “The only people who know how to pick out these trees are the old timers.”
But he added that it is crucial to involve the public in these decisions, especially since the most massive cedar and spruce trees in the Tongass stand the best chance of propagating their species. “You want them to put out seeds, because there’s a reason they’re a thousand years old.”