After almost a decade of planning, the U.S. Forest Service said it’s going forward with the Wrangell Island timber sale. The service will put 5 million to 7 million board feet of timber out to bid.
The Wrangell Island timber sale has changed drastically over the almost-decade-long planning period. The original harvest was about 90 million board feet, which is the measurement for wood used by the timber industry. The Forest Service scaled it back to a fifteenth of that.
The agency decided on the figure after considering final objections.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice objected on behalf of conservation groups including Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, known as SEACC. Its attorney Buck Lindekugel said the smaller sale is more accessible to small regional mills.
“This proposed resolution reflects reality on the ground. They’ve already cut the biggest and most economical timber on Wrangell Island,” Lindekugel said. “Offering up a large volume of timber for one sale right now only benefits the people that are exporting this wood out of the region, and that isn’t good for Southeast Alaska.”
The Forest Service said the sale could total 56 million board feet over 10 years. But, only 5 to 7 million board feet is deemed economically viable at this point.
Selling the rest would require building roads and moving logs by helicopter. That creates a deficit, meaning the Forest Service would lose money to sell the timber at current low market rates.
The agency estimates it would cost them $60 per thousand board feet. If processed domestically, that could be almost four times as much.
An agency spokesperson answered questions in email, but did not provide an interview.
The City of Wrangell said the sale does not provide enough timber to sustain a local logging industry. Carol Rushmore is the city’s economic development director.
“When this sale first started out there was interest by a couple different individuals for creating a manufacturing company, located probably at the old mill site,” Rushmore said. “That could create anywhere from 20 to 30 jobs. That has since gone because there is no guarantee of timber supply.”
The city hopes the rest of the 56 million board feet will incrementally be put up for sale. The Forest Service would need to conduct further economic assessments or hold out for better market rates to put it to bid.
In its objection, the city said it also wants to see a Tongass wood brand and a “buy local” campaign. The city also wants the plan to address how to attract timber manufacturers to Wrangell and enhance youth work skills. The Forest Service said those goals are outside the scope of its current analysis.
The industry trade group Alaska Forest Association objected on the same grounds as the city. Executive Director Owen Graham said 15 million board feet from the sale and a matching amount from another timber sale program are necessary for a local industry.
“That would give them 30 million board feet, which is about the volume it takes to operate a mid-sized sawmill like Wrangell had before their last saw mill closed,” Graham said.
This plan comes in the midst of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s efforts to overturn an updated Tongass Land Management Plan, which includes projects like the Wrangell Island sale. That plan transitions from old growth to young trees. Murkowski opposes that approach, as does the industry.