Information we filed with the U.S. Forest Service in August has resulted in a decision by the agency last week to halt its largest logging project in 20 years on the Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska. The halt is to reconsider the Big Thorne project’s impact on wolves and deer.
In an expert declaration, included as an exhibit when we filed our appeal of the project to a higher level in the agency, Dr. David Person said: “the Big Thorne timber sale, if implemented, represents the final straw that will break the back of a sustainable wolf-deer predator-prey ecological community on Prince of Wales Island, and consequently, the viability of the wolf population on the island may be jeopardized.”
In halting the project for the time being, the Forest Service’s top official in Alaska, Beth Pendleton, quoted that statement. She added, “This is new information that I cannot ignore.”
This is a big win, even though she technically denied our appeal and the ultimate outcome is still uncertain. The timber can’t be sold for the time being, and we have a chance to persuade the Forest Service to drop the project entirely.
The project is on the third-largest island in the U.S., Prince of Wales Island which is located at the bottom of the Alaska panhandle (Southeast Alaska). The island’s temperate rainforest has been intensively logging for six decades, on private- and state-owned as well as the national forest. Dr. Person has studied the endemic Alexander Archipelago wolf on the island for 22 years, as well as the interlocked dependence of wolves and hunters on Sitka black-tailed deer, the wolves’ primary prey.
Dr. Person retired from the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game in May, and his declaration was the first time he could speak free from the State of Alaska’s suppression of its biologists’ scientific understandings. In what the state calls its “one-voice” policy, scientific information that may conflict with maximum development is withheld from other government agencies and the public. While Pendleton claims that Dr. Person’s declaration presents “new information,” in fact we discovered (through a FOIA to the state) internal e-mails from early 2011 by him which say as much about the Big Thorne project. That information was deliberately withheld from the Forest Service and the public when the state submitted its comments on the Big Thorne project.
Pendleton’s decision requires Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole to prepare a formal supplemental information report (SIR) on the ecological situation. Afterward we will press for the preparation of a supplement (SEIS) to the present environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project, which Pendleton acknowledged may be necessary. Her appeal decision affords us a chance to comment on the SIR. Also, her directive convenes an interagency wolf task force for additional deliberations on the ecological situation. Participants will be from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game as well as her agency.
I reported on Dr. Person’s declaration previously, when we filed the appeal. You will find additional excerpts from his declaration there, and his complete declaration and Pendleton’s decision and our appeal are accessible from links in the present article.
This effort to stop the Big Thorne project is a continuation of on-going work we began in Southeast Alaska’s forest in 2003, to protect its ecological integrity and its important role in subsistence hunting and fishing for Alaskans in rural communities. To date we have forestalled several timber sales, and have created pressure toward a dramatic change in how the Tongass is managed, that we hope will be forthcoming. We have an Endangered Species Act petition pending with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) as threatened or endangered, and we are engaged in a lawsuit involving four other Forest Service timber projects on the Tongass.