By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Legislation would allow faster decisions on state timber sales

 


A bill advancing in the Alaska Legislature would dramatically shorten the time needed to authorize logging of some state-owned lands, shrinking approval time from years to days in the most extreme cases.

Proponents say the bill will alleviate fire danger and revitalize the state’s dwindling logging industry by expanding the amount of timber that can be sold from public land, but legislative and public critics contend that the bill’s lack of specificity gives the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources almost unlimited discretion to decide what forests can be speedily sold and cut.

House Bill 104, from Republican Rep. Mike Cronk, passed the House in a 32-5 bipartisan vote on April 20 and received its first Senate committee hearing on April 24. Cronk represents a large Interior district that stretches from the Canadian border across the state almost to the Bering Sea coast.

The normal process for allowing loggers onto state-owned land can take four years or more from the time a forest is identified for cutting.

If passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, HB 104 would allow the state to more quickly sell forests that are threatened by fire, or need to be cleared for development, or have been killed by insects, disease or previous fires.

The change is vital, Cronk said, for allowing the speedy removal of trees killed by spruce beetles before they become a fire danger. Those insects have devastated Southcentral Alaska forests.

The bill could allow the state to sell timber in the path of a wildfire, allowing loggers to cut trees before they burn. And if used to allow logging of commercially valuable timber, it could revitalize the state’s logging industry, Cronk and other supporters said.

Faster approval of timber sales has prompted concerns about what might happen if the state approves logging in places where local residents want to keep their trees.

In Whale Pass, on Prince of Wales Island, residents are organizing to oppose a 292-acre state timber sale expected to log a hillside within 200 feet of some homes there.

Katie Rooks, a Prince of Wales Island resident who works for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, testified before the Senate Resources Committee on April 24 that what’s happening in Whale Pass could soon happen elsewhere if HB 104 becomes law.

“This is a mistake. This is a bad bill, and the folks on Prince of Wales can tell you how bad it would be,” she said.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a member of the committee, said that without firm definitions of what meets the criteria for a fast timber sale, a commissioner and state forestry officials could allow much broader sales than legislators intend.

“This looks like it’s giving the commissioner carte blanche,” Wielechowski said.

Eng disagreed in part.

“In the extreme, any area could be deemed to be at risk, but I believe the theme is that professional experts … will single out the area that’s at extreme risk and will judiciously apply this criteria,” he said.

Wielechowski said after the meeting that he thinks the bill needs more work and that the speed with which the House passed the bill means legislators there may not have thought out its implications.

Legislative work must end by the adjournment deadline of May 17, but bills that fail to pass can be held over to next year’s session.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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