SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Forest Service Announces Big Thorne Timber Project Decision



August 21, 2014

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - The Tongass National Forest announced its decision today to approve what has been the controversial Big Thorne timber sale. The U.S. Forest Service's decision to approve the Big Thorne timber sale will be the largest industrial project in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest since the pulp mill era.

The Big Thorne Project is located on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska near the towns of Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove on the Thorne Bay Ranger District of Tongass National Forest, approximately 40 miles northwest of the City of Ketchikan. The project area covers approximately 232,000 acres.

On August 19, 2014, Forrest Cole stated in his conclusion of the Big Thorne Project's Final Supplemental Information Report (SIR), that based on his careful review of the Interagency Wolf Task Force Report regardign the Statement of Dr. David Person, the review of the Big Thorne Project design, including the modification of the small OGRs and the implementation of the legacy forest structure, and the review of the USFWS 90-day finding on Alexander Archipelago wolves for ESA, that he found that there are no significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns that require the preparation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Big Thorne Project.

The Big Thorne Project was initiated in 2010 with online publication in the Schedule of Proposed Actions. A Notice of Intent was filed in the Federal Register in February 2011 and scoping information was sent to over 400 individuals, organizations, tribes, and agencies. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was distributed in October 2012 for a 45-day public review. The Record of Decision was signed June 28, 2013 and distributed with the Final EIS and numerous appeals followed.

Big Thorne would put more than 120 million board feet of old-growth timber on the chopping block say concerned conservation groups.

“The Forest Service’s approval of the largest, most aggressive timber sale in 20 years is contrary to its stated goal of ramping down old growth clear-cutting in the Tongass. We will not stand idly by while the Forest Service flouts essential safeguards for the Sitka black-tailed deer needed by local hunters and wolves,” said Tom Waldo, Senior Staff Attorney in the Juneau office of Earthjustice.

“The Forest Service’s promise to end old-growth logging in the Tongass rings much more hollow today in light of this announcement. The decision to move forward with Big Thorne raises sobering questions about the agency’s commitment to a sustainable forest and to the region’s vital fishing and tourism industries. We’re talking about the largest Tongass old-growth sale in decades that will cost taxpayers more than $102 million and hurt the region’s top economic drivers, and yet once again the Forest Service has elected to keep the status quo and support the timber industry to the detriment all others in southeast Alaska,” said Kristen Miller, Conservation Director at Alaska Wilderness League.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council says the Big Thorne sale conflicts with the organization’s current work to promote a local wood economy and support the region’s $2 billion fishing and tourism industries and allowing such sales to continue will not only accelerate the decimation of old-growth in the Tongass and greatly increase the expanse of degraded wildlife habitat, but it could also lead to an endangered species listing for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, the first ever listing of wildlife species in the Tongass under the Endangered Species Act.

“We support increasing the number of jobs per log cut on the Tongass, and are working to keep forestry dollars in our communities,” said Malena Marvin, Executive Director with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “Big Thorne will export long-term jobs for short term profits, and do so at a completely unsustainable rate. That’s not progress.”

For years, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has worked with regional partners to develop community-scale forest projects that support local businesses. The organization advocates for responsible logging of second-growth trees and selective use of old-growth. The group works to promote local wood businesses by publishing an annual directory of community-scale sawmills on the Tongass. SEACC is also collaborating on the production of an informational video highlighting local sawmills around Southeast Alaska.

“Our track record shows that we’re not opposed to all logging, just industrial-scale old-growth, export-oriented clearcuts like Big Thorne,” added Marvin. “We want our kids and grandkids to have family-wage timber jobs on the Tongass, and we’re asking the Forest Service to craft sales that honor that long-term goal.”

Marvin notes there are current market barriers to “localizing” Tongass forest jobs and ending export-based industrial logging, but these can be removed by shifting subsidies and engaging stakeholders in community problem-solving. SEACC continues to ask the Tongass National Forest to stick to smaller sales and “micro sales” that spread logging out over decades while making wood accessible for local manufacturers that can’t afford mega sales like Big Thorne.

“The great news is that community-scale forestry can not only keep forestry dollars in Southeast communities, but it is 100% compatible with other uses of the forest,” said Marvin. “Saying no to Big Thorne is really saying yes to better deer habitat for hunters, yes to better stream conditions for salmon, yes to the big rainforests that tourists pay to see, and yes to managing forests to combat global warming.”

“At the end of the day, fish need forests, and Southeast Alaskans need fish.” Marvin noted.

Commercial fishing and recreational tourism bring in a combined $2 billion to the Southeast Alaskan economy, says SEACC, making them by far the largest and most valuable industries on the Tongass National Forest.

SEACC says the Tongass is also a globally-significant carbon-storage reserve, making it a key player in fighting global warming. Due to its large trees, wet climate, and vast size, the Tongass stores more carbon, and therefore does more to combat climate change, than any other national forest in the US. Mature forests absorb and store atmospheric carbon in live and dead trees, foliage and soils, providing a long-term sink. When cut down, up to half of the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as a carbon dioxide pollutant within just a few years.

Recent reports on impacts of ocean acidification on Alaskan marine resources highlight the need for Tongass management that prioritizes global climate.

According to SEACC, though the Forest Service estimates the sale would cost taxpayers $13 million, the economics of recent sales indicate taxpayer costs could climb over $100 million. SEACC says there is significant scientific concern that the sale’s destruction of Sitka black-tailed deer habitat could also trigger an Endangered Species Act listing for the Alexander Archipelago Wolf, the first ever ESA listing on the Tongass.

Conservation groups, including Alaska Wilderness League, Audubon Alaska, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, SEACC, and the Sierra Club, say that more than half of the Tongass’ largest old-growth giants have already been cut. In 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an agency goal of quickly ending industrial-scale old-growth logging in the Tongass, but conservation groups are concerned that Forest Service recently proposed another 10-15 years of clear-cutting these "ancient trees". Massive timber sales like Big Thorne wholly contradict the Forest Service’s stated goal of rapidly transitioning the Tongass away from large scale old-growth logging to more sustainable management based on restoration, recreation, fishing and tourism, according to conservation groups.

Conservationists say that such sales are costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The Forest Service has estimated that Big Thorne will cost taxpayers more than $13 million dollars – yet based on actual Tongass timber program costs versus timber logged during the past few years, Big Thorne alone could cost more than $102 million.Conservationists say tens of millions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars continue to flow into the Tongass every year, subsidizing the industrial-scale clear-cutting of our largest national forest. They say this taxpayer giveaway continues at the expense of the region’s top industries, as fishing and tourism are the largest sources of private-sector jobs in southeast Alaska. These industries support 7,200 and 10,000 jobs respectively and pump approximately $1 billion apiece into the regional economy each year according to conservation groups.

“Big Thorne is bad for birds, wildlife and hunters, plus the American public will get stuck paying the $100 million dollar cost of the sale. Meanwhile, the Forest Service doesn’t have enough to fund its work for the fishing and tourism industries that actually matter to the Southeast Alaska economy,” said Jim Adams, Policy Director of Audubon Alaska.

“This sale is truly a national disgrace. Massive, taxpayer-subsidized destruction of virgin rainforest owned by the public is something America can no longer afford or tolerate. It’s time the Forest Service managed the Tongass for the unique natural values treasured by local residents and visitors alike,” said Niel Lawrence, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The Forest Service should be acting to safeguard this amazing wild place for future generations, not selling it to the highest bidder. It's clear that the best path forward, for both the wildlife and people who depend on the Tongass, is to protect the rainforest and its old-growth trees. Yet the Forest Service has again chosen the wrong way," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.

“Big Thorne is a big mistake,” said Malena Marvin with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “It’s time to re-tool Tongass timber management away from large, export-driven old-growth sales like Big Thorne to real community-scale forestry that maintains the remaining big-tree deer and wild salmon habitat so crucial to Alaskan families and Southeast Alaska’s $2 billion/year fishing and tourism industries.”

On the Web:

Big Thorne Project (SIR) 30 pages
Final Supplemental Information Report Documentation of Interagency/ Interdisciplinary Review


Sources of News:


Alaska Wilderness League

Audubon Alaska


Natural Resources Defense Council

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Sierra Club


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