Whale Pass wants state to turn timber sale into carbon-offset lease

The city of Whale Pass in Southeast Alaska doesn’t have much: a few dozen residents, a road, a school and a few lodges, among other businesses. But what it does have is a lot of trees.

The town, nestled in a cove on the north end of Prince of Wales Island, about 40 air miles southwest of Wrangell, has been the site of logging camps since the 1960s. Like the rest of Southeast, it’s within the Tongass National Forest, the United States’ largest national forest.

Now, Whale Pass residents are fighting a pending state timber sale in their town, pushing for the area to instead be preserved and leased for carbon offsets.

The Alaska Department of National Resources finalized a 292-acre timber sale near Whale Pass in April. A number of the residents testified against the sale, trying to get the department to stop it because it would take place on a visible hillside. James Greeley, a Whale Pass city council member and business owner, said they didn’t want an area so visible from town being logged.

Nevertheless, the sale was approved. The city council, seeking alternatives, turned to an idea that’s new to Alaska: carbon offsets.

In October, the city council sent a letter to DNR requesting that the sale be converted to carbon offsets, seeking to become the first carbon-offset program offered by the state. An analysis provided by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy to the Whale Pass city council estimated that a carbon-offset project there could be worth anywhere between $1.3 million and $6.8 million, depending on the value of the carbon market.

Carbon offsets work by someone paying the state to manage a piece of forest land to preserve the trees from cutting or fire. Companies or individuals buy an interest in that piece of land as a way to offset their own carbon-producing activities. Facing pressure to reduce carbon footprints, some companies purchase enough to be able to say they are carbon neutral without having to stop other polluting activities.

Greeley said the city council sees that as a win-win for the town and for the state — it brings in some money while also preserving the trees for the town, which helps attract tourists to its lodges, and for residents, who value a natural landscape. All 292 acres of the proposed sale area are old-growth forest, according to DNR.

“In my opinion, they want to have their cake and eat it too,” Greeley said. “They talk about timber credits, but they’re still out here cutting down old-growth trees.”

The state said the Whale Pass acreage wouldn’t work as a carbon-offset lease because it’s too small.

Rena Miller, a special assistant to the DNR commissioner, said in an email that the minimum size would be about 5,000 acres, which she said is an industry standard.

“There are fixed, ongoing costs associated with maintaining a project per the rules of the independent, nonprofit registries that validate the projects and issue credits,” she said. “Those costs need to be recouped via the sale of credits generated by the project. The smaller the land, the higher the credit revenue required to cover costs.”

The Legislature this year approved Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal authorizing development of a state-sponsored carbon-offset program. The regulations are still in development, though, said Lorraine Henry, the director of communications for DNR.

“We anticipate making announcements at key milestones in the program and when public comment periods are open,” Henry said in an email.

DNR Commissioner John Boyle said in an email that the state is responsible for nearly all timber harvest opportunities in Alaska because of federal rules constricting harvest in federal forest lands. He said his department did consider input from Prince of Wales Island communities throughout the process.

Greeley, who said residents are concerned about safety from landslides, impacts on property values, views, and the increase in logging traffic on Whale Pass’ only road, said he thought DNR was paying less attention to the community because it’s small.

“Would (the sale) be the ‘perfect size’ if it was bordering a neighborhood in Anchorage?” he said.


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