A team of nonagency biologists returned this summer to the Tongass National Forest to study proposed timber sales and came out of the woods concerned about wildlife problems such as the loss of deer habitat.
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Last summer, two Panhandle biologists hired by the Sitka Conservation Society traveled to more than a dozen Tongass timber sale areas and published a field report detailing flaws in timber management.
This summer, the biologists, Bob Christensen and Richard Carstensen, visited eight timber harvest areas, focusing on sales on North Chichagof Island, North Kuiu Island and Prince of Wales Island.
"We're finding patterns across the forest that we think the Forest Service should address," said Kenyon Fields, the society's coordinator of the team project, called the Ground-truthing Project.
One problem is that federal and state agencies have reduced the amount of work they do to monitor the affect of timber sales on wildlife in the Tongass, Fields said.
"We're getting out there as citizens to do work that agencies aren't able to do anymore," he said.
Spokeswoman Jackie Groce of the U.S. Forest Service declined Wednesday to comment on the biologists' claims because she said the national forest's scientific method of estimating deer habitat is being challenged in federal court.
Among the biologists' findings: Two major timber harvest areas on Prince of Wales and North Kuiu islands each have lost slightly more than 50 percent of their prime winter deer habitat.
Additional logging planned for the 50-million-board-foot Logjam sale on Prince of Wales Island could remove an additional 15 percent of the area's winter deer habitat, according to the biologists.
There's virtually no winter deer habitat left in the North Kuiu Island timber sale units, but proposed logging would remove two percent more winter deer habitat, Fields said.
The biologists also contend that numerous old growth tree reserves in the Tongass may not be meeting their goal to sustain wildlife populations. The reserves are often isolated and impede the natural movement of bears and deer, Christensen said.
The field team went on a Forest Service-led tour of proposed timber units near Hoonah also took a tour of the town's Icy Straits Lumber sawmill, Fields said. Mill owner Wes Tyler was in the field and unavailable for comment Wednesday.
The Sitka Conservation Society's biologists' information could prove valuable to Tongass National Forest planners, Groce added. She commended them for the "time and effort expended in collecting information that could be relevant for ... planning efforts such as the Kuiu and Logjam timber sales."
Kake natural resource officer Mike Jackson met with the field team this summer when it visited his village. Jackson said he is worried about the deer on North Kuiu Island, especially if logging continues and thick timber regrowth squeezes out room for wildlife, he said.
"More harm to subsistence is unacceptable," Jackson said.
Juneau resident Ken Leghorn, a trustee with the Alaska Conservation Foundation, camped with the team this summer on North Chichagof Island.
"I wanted to support the work because I feel the science-based approach to forest issues is something that can really help break some of the impasse over (Tongass) management," Leghorn said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.