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By Dan Rudy 

Assembly, community weigh in on Big Thorne support


Residents came to express their opinions before the the Wrangell City and Borough Assembly regarding its decision last week to look into supporting the United States Forest Service (USFS) in a trio of impending lawsuits seeking to halt the Big Thorne timber sale.

The meeting was held at noon Friday in the Assembly Chambers. All members were present despite the short notice, though Stephen Prysunka participated via telecommunication.

At the Oct. 14 meeting, the Assembly had looked favorably at acting as an intervenor in the dispute, which would cost $5,000 to join other parties taking that course. Members tasked the Borough Manager with exploring the option.

Among the community members opposing this was Stephen Todd, who spoke on his own behalf as a resident of Wrangell for the past 15 years. He had previously sent a letter to the Assembly stating his opinion that he considered the idea to be a misguided use of public money.

“This money is not a seat at the table; it's an attorney fee,” said Todd. He further noted the fee would go to Juneau attorney Jim Clark, one of the lawyers who had first contacted the Borough asking for its support in the suits.

In 2008 Clark had admitted to defrauding citizens of his honest services by neglecting to report to state election regulators $68,550 in campaign fees he had solicited from oil firm VECO. At the time he had been chief of staff to Alaska's former governor Frank Murkowski.

The charges were later dropped by prosecutors after the U.S. Supreme Court found the law Clark was being charged under to be unconstitutionally vague.

“How can you justify sending this man money?” Todd asked the Assembly.

Also Todd felt the proportion of logs being processed in the region would be insufficient to support local industry.

“Jobs go out with these minimally-processed logs,” he said. “We should be working to support small, local mills.”

In a letter he had also submitted to the Assembly, Todd advocated a more creative approach to revitalizing the timber industry, rejecting short-term goals that minimally-processed, export-driven, clear-cut sales might represent in favor of more selectively-scaled and sustainable harvests, which could also foster a local processing and crafting industry.

Resident Marlene Clarke was in agreement, opposing the city using public funds to support private enterprise in this manner.

“I think Steven was very concise in his comments,” she said. “I don't think we have any business intervening.”

In her opinion, timber going out “in the round” represented lost Alaska jobs and a missed opportunity to support local mills and craftsmen.

Discussing the item, Assembly members were divided on what level of support would be appropriate. Talk steered toward filing an amicus, or friend of the court, brief instead of intervening. This would not give the Borough any say in a settlement, but would allow it to present its opinion in the case.

However, the Assembly was generally in agreement that some action on behalf of the sale be taken.

“I think we're better off to cut than not to cut,” said Mark Mitchell. Regardless of the proportion of timber being exported or else worked locally, he reasoned it was important to support what industry remained. And with the Borough potentially looking at a sale of its own, he felt it would be important to stand with Craig and other communities.

“Next time they'll stand behind us,” he said.

Admitting she is not herself an expert on timber, Julie Decker reasoned that USFS has considered these concerns for around five years in devising the sale.

“When it takes that amount of time I'm fairly confident they're doing a very thorough job,” she said. Decker also agreed it would be better to support local industry than it would be to not be involved.

“What's left of the industry is quite small at this time,” she said.

An amicus brief would also come at a cost, with the retainer paid to the city's attorney not covering work to put together and file such a document. But making a motion to explore that route, Daniel Blake said he would rather money be paid to the Borough's attorney than elsewhere.

The Assembly voted unanimously to look into drafting and filing its own amicus brief in support of the sale, as opposed to submitting one in association with other parties.

When the Assembly returned at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Blake pointed out that he had found out an amicus brief would cost as much or more than an intervention would to submit.

Talking to the attorneys involved, Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch said he'd learned the joint intervention might have already been submitted on Monday or Tuesday, but he could not determine whether it was true. If so, Wrangell might have to file its own amendment to participate.

“I really think we need to make an attempt,” Mitchell stated.

Addressing Todd's comments at the previous week's special meeting, Decker felt it necessary to defend Clark's reputation. She said the charges against him had been politically motivated.

“I've worked with Jim Clark in the past,” Decker said, adding that he was an honest person.

Further, Decker said she had contacted Viking Lumber and inquired what proportion of the timber would be subject to export. For the first offering of 95 million board feet, 38 percent of spruce and hemlock and all of the yellow cedar could be exported. The spruce accounted for about 56 million board feet and hemlock 23.6 million, according to the company.

The minimum amount of work that could be done on the logs processed by Viking would be sawn on four sides to make cants, after which the timber could be further processed down south. That in mind, she expressed support for intervention in the suits.

Prysunka was the lone dissenter on the Assembly, voting against intervening. He expressed the opinion that the $5,000 was being spent unnecessarily, as all intervenors would be considered as one.

“How different is our perspective?” he asked.

Along with Mayor David Jack, the Assembly voted in favor of the action 5-1. Jabusch will make inquiries as to whether Wrangell is too late to join in as an intervenor, or if it will have to do so on its own.


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