The U.S. Forest Service agreed Monday to sell timber to a Ketchikan mill in a roadless area of the Tongass National Forest after the Obama administration's approved the sale.
Orion North timber sale is the first such awarded since Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced in May he would personally review all timber sales in roadless areas of national forests in the next year.
He's doing that while the Obama administration takes some time to review the Clinton-era Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which banned road-building on about 58 million acres of national forest land nationwide but has been challenged since it was issued.
Pacific Log and Lumber, the Ketchikan mill, won the contract to clear-cut 4.4 million board-feet of timber - a relatively small sale - with the option of cutting another 2.4 million board-feet if it's economical. The Ketchikan-area sale is on Revillagigedo Island in an area that borders Misty Fjords National Monument.
Pacific Log and Lumber is owned by Ketchikan resident Steve Seley. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Tongass environmental activists had been hoping Vilsack's announcement would translate to a temporary moratorium on timber road-building in roadless areas, including Orion North and three other timber sales on the Tongass. President Obama supported the roadless rule in his campaign.
Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, a law firm that has fought to keep roadless areas roadless, said he hoped Vilsack had made Orion North an exception because it was already in the works when he issued his directive.
Contractors have already built about a mile of the 6.9 miles that are to be built for the sale. Another 1.9 miles of old roads will be rebuilt for the 381-acre clear-cut, according to Tongass spokeswoman Erin Uloth.
Despite Waldo's hope, a spokesman higher up the chain with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., said the road-building in progress wasn't why Vilsack approved the sale. Rather, the secretary recognized how much people in the area needed the jobs and the economic boost.
Orion North was first offered in 1999 but halted by environmentalists' legal challenge and settlement with the Forest Service over Tongass land management.
In March, five environmental groups sued the most recent Orion North offering. They said the Forest Service had failed to incorporate new scientific information that had emerged since it last studied the area a decade ago. The judge did not agree, however.
The environmentalists have appealed to a higher court.
"Just building the road will cost four times as much revenue as the Forest Service is going to get from the timber sale," said Waldo of Earthjustice.
Alaska's U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, both praised Vilsack's approval of Orion North because it would help Southeast's tree-starved loggers.
Begich said it was relatively small but "a good first step" for the secretary's new policy.
Murkowski's statement said she would have been "extremely concerned" if Vilsack had blocked the sale.
"Instead, I am heartened that the secretary has recognized the importance of maintaining an environmentally sound timber industry in Southeast Alaska," she said.
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.