ANCHORAGE - A very expensive tree-thinning project in the Tongass National Forest is receiving more than a half-million dollars in federal stimulus money.
That works out to a whopping $2,800 per acre to thin the Ocean Boulevard forest on Chichagof Island in southeast Alaska.
One critic charges that it's just more of the same for a state that has gained notoriety for its boondoggles.
"This project is about selling to the Obama administration the remarkable notion that we should spend more tax dollars to do worthless stuff in Alaska," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an Oregon-based conservation group.
Even Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole describes the price as "extremely high." But Cole says the $677,000 project's true value may be in what it reveals to the U.S. Forest Service about future management of the 17-million-acre Tongass, now that hundreds of thousands of acres of previously logged old-growth forest are maturing.
The critical question is: Of what use are the second-growth trees in the country's largest national forest? Cole acknowledged that there is currently no market for the trees.
Stahl said he routinely flips through the list of projects approved for stimulus money, and "it immediately struck me that this is the only thinning project I've ever seen that the Forest Service put under capital improvements and maintenance." That category, Stahl said, is normally reserved for improving buildings and roads.
In this case, the improvement is deer, he said.
According to the official project list, Ocean Boulevard will result in the thinning of 238 acres of "young growth forest to improve forest health" last logged in 1968.
The thinning will "increase the space, sunlight, water and nutrients available for the remaining trees, allowing them to thrive and grow, providing habitat for deer," the entry says.
Cole said the project's primary objectives of forest rehabilitation and improved deer habitat are important, but the project has a secondary benefit of helping forest managers learn more about what to do with 450,000 acres of second-growth trees in the Tongass.
Forest managers are continuing to cut old-growth trees but the push is to transition to logging the second-growth areas, Cole said.
The problem is that much of the former old-growth forest has grown back in a mass of dense, pole-sized trees with questionable market value. The trees have created an impenetrable canopy, allowing little light to reach the forest floor. That has left deer with little to forage on and has increased winter die-off, leaving Sitka area residents who rely on subsistence with fewer deer to harvest and eat.
Stahl said the project is a strange way to use federal stimulus money.
"It turns out the Forest Service wants to pay the logger several thousand dollars per acre in order to improve habitat for deer," Stahl said. "These just aren't any old deer. It turns out these will be the world's most expensive deer."
The Ocean Boulevard project has its supporters: the community of Sitka, the Sitka Tribal Council, the Sitka Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy.
"These stimulus projects are starting to outline a new direction for forest management on the Tongass," said Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.
Carol Goularte, district ranger for Sitka, said the project may also help the Forest Service respond to a resolution passed by Sitka residents in 2007 asking the federal agency to provide 800 homes with firewood by 2009.
"We have been working on trying to make firewood available to people in Sitka because of the high cost of diesel fuel," she said.
Dustin Solberg, spokesman for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, said investing now in such projects will pay dividends later on in the form of jobs as it helps the Forest Service make the transition from old-growth logging to second-growth, he said.
"That is our future," Goularte said of second-growth timber. Uses for the wood range from building infrastructure to processing wood chips to making bio bricks to building log furniture to making window jams, she said. But, she said, there is little infrastructure in the Tongass at this time to accomodate someone wanting to set up shop and go into business.
Cole said that without a market for the second-growth trees "we are basically bearing all the costs on this thing."