As documented in 1996 by the Public Employees for Environmental Ethics (PEER), the Tongass National Forest has a long history of permitting timber operators such as Viking Lumber Company to operate in a lawless manner in Southeast Alaska, ignoring timber export violations, scaling fraud, and outright timber theft practices known as the “Alaska Rules.” Defenders’ board is well aware that the Alaska Rules still apply through groundtruthing of the Tonka Timber project, where Viking would clearcut deer winter range prescribed for selective cutting, and expand cutting units beyond the prescribed acreage to whatever size Viking deemed fit.
In 2016, the Forest Service’s Washington Office reviewed the agency’s Alaska Region timber sale and administration processes for two Viking Lumber timber sales – the Tonka Timber Sale on Lindenberg Peninsula and the Big Thorne Project on Prince of Wales Island. The review showed that: (1) instead of improving “forest ecosystem health,” the Tongass National Forest allowed Viking to high-grade the most ecologically valuable trees rather than ones that were intended for removal to achieve the desired “forest ecosystem health” effects; (2) the Forest Service failed to conduct timber-theft prevention inspections; and (3) all monitoring and reports of timber removals, etc. were done with self-reporting by Viking Lumber Company.
The failure of the Forest Service to inspect Viking’s activities and require adherence to the timber sale contract for the Tonka sale alone cost taxpayers $2 million – more than twice the amount Viking paid for the timber. Viking’s logging subcontractors admit that the Forest Service’s harvest prescription and the terms of the timber sale contract were irrelevant to what happened on the ground. The logging subcontractors cut only according to Viking Lumber’s instructions. Forest Service maladministration of these timber sales, through various avenues, cost taxpayers an enormous sum. The process of offering timber for bid is informed by first appraising the value of a sale’s timber. The appraisal methods resulted in artificially low minimum bid levels for the high value species – Alaska Yellow Cedar and Sitka Spruce. Also, the standard appraisal process deducts logging and haul costs, toward ensuring a sale purchaser a profit. In the Tonka and Big Thorne projects the actual logging and haul costs were much lower than estimated in the Forest Service appraisals, causing an unwarranted taxpayer gift of over $2 million to Viking Lumber.
The Washington Office directed the Forest Service to take steps to eliminate these windfalls. Instead, Acting Regional Forester Becky Nourse of the Alaska Region determined that the Forest Service should compensate Viking for its failure to complete logging under the Big Thorne Stewardship sale contract. The Alaska Region’s review concluded that its logging cost estimates were wrong, and the error prevented Viking from logging some of the volume under a contract that Viking entered into (although at its own risk). According to PEER, the Forest Service has contacted Viking and the company is “amenable” to receiving yet another gift from federal taxpayers.
PEER has sued the Forest Service under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for failing to release the documents the agency claims to have completed in resolving the Tongass timber fraud. We will keep you posted.