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Sen. Murkowski Expresses Guarded Optimism about Big Thorne Timber Project

Disappointed the Forest Service Drops Old Growth Acres to Appease Environmental Activists

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today voiced guarded optimism about the decision by the Forest Service to move forward with the long-promised Big Thorne Project in the Tongass National Forest.

Murkowski cautioned the U.S. Forest Service not to give in to threats of litigation from environmental activists determined to stop all responsible timber harvests on federal lands. The Big Thorne sale – already overdue – represents the last best hope for keeping what remains of Southeast’s timber mills in operation, Murkowski said.   

“I am disappointed that the Forest Service has reduced the first sale from the Big Thorne project in the face of opposition from the environmental community,” Murkowski said. “The Big Thorne project is key to returning the Tongass to a working and healthy forest, and to ensuring that the timber mills in Southeast survive.”

Forest Service officials have chosen to drop multiple old growth harvest units – about 6 million board feet of timber – from the Big Thorne sale in an attempt to avoid a legal fight with environmental groups.

Forest Service officials cited comments from the Alaska office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that speculated that the sale of old-growth timber could harm deer populations on which the wolf on Prince of Wales Island feed as one reason for the changes. The Fish and Wildlife Service are mulling an endangerment listing for the Alexander Archipelago wolf on Prince of Wales Island.

“I expect the Forest Service to stand up and defend its decisions and not be cowed by threats to tie up the sale in the Ninth Circuit Court,” Murkowski said. “The weight of the evidence from state of Alaska and Forest Service biologists shows clearly that wolf habitat – and the deer the wolves prey upon – is not put at risk by additional logging on Prince of Wales Island.”

Biologists have determined that any downturn in wolf numbers is more likely to be caused by hunting and could be mitigated with appropriate regulations, education and improved enforcement.

“Use of the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel to threaten legal action against every management decision related to our public lands hurts everyone,” Murkowski said. “If federal managers can no longer exercise their best judgment and expertise when making decisions then perhaps it’s time to consider reforming the law.”

The project, as originally proposed, would provide Southeast mills with 147 million board feet of timber – enough to see them through the Forest Service’s plan to transition future sales to young-growth trees. The first sale from the project is currently scheduled to be awarded at the end of September.

“It is vital that the Forest Service move heaven and earth to award the sale this September. The economic future of our timber mills and good paying timber jobs in Southeast Alaska are dependent on it,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski has been outspoken in her criticism of the Forest Service’s failure to increase the amount of timber cut annually in the Tongass. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has repeatedly testified to his commitment to improving the timber sale program, but so far nothing has changed.   

Last year was not a good one for Southeast. Region 10 was the Forest Service’s worst performing region, with the agency meeting just 16.8 percent of its harvest target. The agency’s 2008 land management plan for the Tongass projected an annual timber sale program of up to 267 million board feet, but only about 35 million board feet have been harvested annually over the past decade.

“Despite repeated pledges from the Forest Service, we continue to see a steady marchtoward losing what remains of our timber industry,” Murkowski said. “Most of our mills have already closed. The few that have hung on are being starved out by the Forest Service’s inability to successfully complete sales of old-growth timber.”

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