Stripped sections of bark and hardened drops of tree sap are seen on May 24, 2018, on trees near Big Lake that are infested with bark beetles. That kind of damage kills infested spruce trees. (Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)

Stripped sections of bark and hardened drops of tree sap are seen on May 24, 2018, on trees near Big Lake that are infested with bark beetles. That kind of damage kills infested spruce trees. (Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)

House-passed bill would trim the time needed for Alaska loggers to cut state-owned forests

Measure could reduce wildfire risks, but critics worry about overuse by the state agency in charge.

A bill advancing in the Alaska Legislature would dramatically shorten the time needed to approve the 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 have noted 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 Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, passed the House in a 32-5 bipartisan vote last week and received its first Senate hearing Monday.

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, need to be cleared for development, or have been killed by insects, disease or prior 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.

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, last week talked about the effect of fires on the Kenai Peninsula.

“It’s been said that if another wildfire happens on the (Kenai) Peninsula, that we will light up like a matchbox,” she said.

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.

“This is the baseline to start managing our forests,” Cronk said shortly before his bill passed the House.

How quickly could a sale happen?

“Days,” said Cronk aide Dave Stancliffe, giving the example of a wildfire threatening Tok and loggers being allowed to cut ahead of its path.

In the case of beetle-killed stands of forest, a sale could take “maybe weeks or months,” he said.

Either case would be lightning-quick compared to current practice. That’s created concerns about what might happen if the state approves logging in places where local residents want to keep their trees.

In the Southeast Alaska town of Whale Pass, residents are organizing to oppose a 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 Monday 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.

On Monday, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked whether it might allow the clear-cutting of the Anchorage Hillside, a fire-prone area that’s also home to the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

“Could the commissioner come in … and say we should clear-cut that whole area?” he asked.

“In theory, it could happen,” said state forester Helge Eng. “I submit it’s a relatively theoretical and unlikely event.”

Eng said the economics of a potential timber sale on the Hillside make it unlikely to occur.

“I would think, in that hypothetical scenario, you wouldn’t have all the database space at the department to take all the negative comments for that proposed sale,” said Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks and co-chair of the Senate Resources Committee.

Wielechowski 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 some tweaks and that the speed with which the House passed the bill means legislators there may not have thought out its implications. As the Senate Rules Committee chair, he plays an important role in determining whether the Senate votes on bills.

Asked about those concerns, Cronk noted that the Legislature is already preparing to give the DNR commissioner and state foresters broad discretion to preserve forests under a proposed carbon sequestration plan.

“If we’re paying our commissioner and our foresters, let’s trust them to do their job, and if they break that trust, then we can address that, but we don’t need to micromanage. We have to trust them to do their job,” he said.

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This story originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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