Viking Lumber wins Big Thorne contract, again

No work will be done until lawsuits wrap

Southeast Alaska’s last mid-sized mill has been awarded the contract for the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island.

 

The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday that Viking Lumber Co. in Klawock is the winner of the sale’s stewardship contract. Tongass National Forest spokesman Kent Cummins said he is unable to comment on the dollar value of the contract, or how many companies bid on the sale, until the contract is signed and finalized.

The company was awarded a contract on the same sale around this time last year, when the Forest Service first opened Big Thorne, allowing for harvest from more than 6,000 acres of old-growth and 2,000 acres of young-growth timber near Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island. The sale was taken off the table, however, when a former state biologist said it would negatively impact the wolf and deer populations on the island.

The Forest Service reconsidered the sale for a year but decided to uphold it in August. The reopened sale was met promptly with three lawsuits by conservation groups concerned about wolf and deer populations, old growth logging and the health of the area’s small mills if Viking won the bid.

Viking exports nearly all of its timber: About 80 percent goes to 30 other U.S. states and 20 percent goes to overseas markets, Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said in a previous Empire report. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council says it’s time for the Forest Service to transition to small sales for small mills whose products stay in Southeast communities.

The Big Thorne sale differs from a standard timber sale, in which money from the sale goes directly to the federal treasury, Cummins said. A stewardship contract puts some of the money back into the local economy — Viking is contractually obligated to complete trail renovations, stream restoration projects and young growth thinning while logging the land, he said.

“It’s something we’re doing more and more as we transition to young growth,” Cummins said. “It’s a lot better in terms of work that stays in the community and benefits the local economy.”

Some of the thinning work — vital for a healthy forest — will probably be subcontracted by Viking to smaller local mills who can use the wood, Cummins said. Trail renovations and stream restoration will probably be subcontracted, too. Viking owners Kirk and Bryce Dahlstrom did not respond to a request for an interview by press time.

Greenpeace is another organization that filed suit against the sale. Alaska forest campaigner Larry Edwards, based in Greenpeace’s Sitka field office, said the organization is “working on stipulations on what can or cannot happen before the (court’s) decision is made,” in light of the contract being awarded.

Greenpeace is concerned with Alexander Archipelago wolf and deer populations on the island because of the “cumulative impacts that have occurred on Prince of Wales Island... the place where industrial logging first began and is most intense.”

The Big Thorne sale “puts Prince of Wales over the edge ecologically, particularly in terms of deer, wolf and human ecological communities,” Edwards said, and logging roads on the island have “enabled a high degree of illegal (taking) of wolves.”

The organization petitioned the U.S. government to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf as endangered in 2011, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on the wolves’ status by the end of 2015, Edwards said. The Juneau Fish and Wildlife office did not return calls by press time.

Wolves and deer took center stage in a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands in 2008 against four Tongass logging projects. Last week, the U.S. District Court in Anchorage decided to stop the projects near Petersburg, Ketchikan and Hydaburg, saying the Forest Service planned the sales under the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan, but used deer population requirements of the most recent 2008 plan.

“The logging plans did not take into account that these areas are already struggling to sustain a high enough deer population to allow timber sales,” Edwards said in a Greenpeace news release, which states ample deer population is crucial to a sustained, healthy wolf population and local subsistence hunters.

The court ordered the Forest Service to reconfigure the sales completely under either the 1997 or 2008 plan before opening them again, Edwards said.

“The Forest Service has a very difficult challenge, and we don’t think they can pull it off,” he said. “We think these timber sales just need to be canceled.”

Similar legal delays on the Big Thorne sale have been frustrating for the Prince of Wales Island town of Thorne Bay, Mayor Jim Gould said. He said the community suffers from a slightly-higher-than-state-average unemployment rate, and the work that would come with Big Thorne logging would lessen that. The sale would be a boon to the community of about 500: “Everything from the employment, to the equipment passing through town, to the barge system,” Gould said.

Thorne Bay was established as a logging camp in 1960 but has shrunk with the timber industry. Still, there are about six small, local mills that would “either directly benefit or indirectly benefit from the spinoff of the lower-value material” generated through the logging, he said. The project would provide “timber supply these folks need for the future to plan anything today.”

In 2013, there were 325 timber industry jobs in Southeast, making it one of the smallest industries in the region, according to Southeast Conference’s annual economic report. Gould said that the diminished size of the timber industry means it is no longer a threat to the ecosystem.

“By no means is it the timber industry of the past — there’s no more 100 million feet a year being harvested off the island,” he said. That the Thorne Bay project “can’t be tolerated on a 17 million acre forest... it’s amazing to me.”

Cummins said “the process is continuing” on the sale but no ground work will be done by Viking “until the courts decide,” which he expects won’t be until spring of next year.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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