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AFA up to the task

Big decisions are best made with the best information available.

With that in mind, the Alaska Forest Association’s participation in the Roadless Rule process makes sense.

The Ketchikan-based timber industry group was contracted by the Alaska Department of Forestry to provide specific analysis regarding each alternative being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service in the proposed Alaska-specific Roadless Rule.

The contract for up to $250,000 in federal grant funding has attracted some negative attention, but, given the magnitude of the decision at hand, bringing AFA’s expertise to the process seems most worthwhile.

At the state’s request, the Forest Service in 2018 began the process of developing an Alaska specific revision to the 2001 federal Roadless Rule that prevented new roadbuilding and development within inventoried roadless areas of national forests, including the Tongass and Chugach national forests in Alaska.

 The State of Alaska is a “cooperating agency’ in the process. To assist the state’ participation, the Forest Service in 2018 authorized $2 million in State Fire Assistance funding for the state, most of which was intended to “convene and facilitate a diverse mix of state-specific interests to inform the state’s input as a cooperating agency in the rule making process,” according to the state’s grant modification proposal that resulted in the federal funding.

The state is matching federal funding with $2 million of its own funds, according to information from Alaska Department of Natural Resource Director Corri Feige.

In March of this year, the Alaska Division of Forestry contracted with AFA to conduct an economic analysis of commercial timber sales involved with each alternative being considered in the rulemaking process.

The two cooperative agreements signed by AFA and Alaska Department of Forestry officials in March states that the Forest Service and Department of Forestry “require industry perspective on the operability and economic viability of future timber sales” in the Tongass.

“Due to expensive operational costs and limited infrastructure, not all available forest lands or harvest prescriptions provide for economically viable operations,” the agreement states. “The Alaska Forest Association can provide this perspective as a third-party trade association.”

One of the cooperative agreements requires two specific deliverables from AFA.

The first is to define the acres of roadless timber and estimate of “roadless” volume for each alternative included in the Environmental Impact Statement. The second deliverable is estimates of the  “fall down” and-or volume of “roadless” economic timber for each alternative.

AFA would receive $100,000 in advance for the work, and up to $150,000 more for reimbursable items for which AFA would have to provide receipts and proof of charges for which reimbursement is requested, according to the agreement.

The second cooperative agreement involves facilitating collaboration between the Forest Service, Division of Forestry and forest industry in Southeast Alaska. The agreement will pay AFA up to $110,000.

The agreements became publicized in late September following public information requests by KTOO reporter Elizabeth Jenkins.

Jenkins’ news report caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and U.S Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona. On Monday, Stabenow and Grijalva sent a letter to USDA Inspector General Patrick Fong, requesting an investigation regarding the “potential misuse” of Forest Service grant money.

In particular, they were upset with the use of federal fire assistance grant money for non-fire purposes in relation to the funding for AFA.

DNR Commissioner Feige fired back on Wednesday, stating in a press release that the “facts show DNR is using these grants exactly as intended — to help the Forest Service understand how roadless rule changes would affect Southeast Alaska.

Feige’s announcement added that the state hasn’t yet billed the Forest Service under the grant for work completed by AFA, and could use state matching funds for that.  

“DNR did everything right, and allegations to the contrary are as easy to refute as they are embarrassing for the accusers,” Feige said.

As the issue gets sorted out, it’s worth noting the fundamental value of bringing AFA into the process. Although the timber industry’s presence in Southeast Alaska has declined substantially in recent years, AFA maintains the historical knowledge and current technical expertise to address key issues relative to timber economics in the Tongass National Forest. As we’ve seen over the years, its perspective is not that of the Forest Service or other agency. It’s rooted in a knowledge of this forest, in addition to a keen awareness of the global marketplace for forest products. For an astute analysis of economic effects of the Roadless Rule and each of the alternatives under consideration, the Alaska Forest Association is up to the task.