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 Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Wreath bearers present wreaths for fallen comrades, brothers and sisters in arms during a Memorial Day ceremony at Alaskan Memorial Park on Monday. Laying wreaths on the graves of fallen heroes is a way to honor and remember the sacrifices made. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Traditional Memorial Day ceremonies offer new ways to ‘never forget’ those who served

New installations at memorial sites, fresh words of reminder shared by hundreds gathering in Juneau.

Thunder Mountain High School graduates celebrate after moving their tassels to the left, their newly received diplomas in hand, at the end of Sunday’s commencement ceremony. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
‘Forever a Falcon’: Thunder Mountain High School celebrates final graduating class

147 seniors get soaring sendoff during 16th annual commencement full of heightened emotions.

Seniors at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé enter the gymnasium for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS graduates celebrate journey from virtual ‘pajama class’ freshmen to virtuous camaraderie

Resolve in overcoming struggles a lifelong lesson for future, seniors told at commencement ceremony.

Sierra Guerro-Flores (right) listens to her advisor Electra Gardinier after being presented with her diploma at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduation ceremony Sunday in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alternatives are vast for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduating class

31 students take center stage during ceremony revisiting their paths at the school and what’s next.

The LeConte state ferry in 2023. (Lex Treinen / Chilkat Valley News)
Stranded Beerfest travelers scramble to rebook after LeConte ferry breakdown

Loss of 225-passenger ferry leaves many Juneau-bound revelers looking for other ways home.

A photo taken from the terminal roof shows the extent of the first phase of paving to accommodate large aircraft. (Mike Greene / City and Borough of Juneau)
Large-scale repaving project plants itself at Juneau International Airport

Work may take two to three years, schedule seeks to limit impact on operations.

Capital Transit buses wait to depart from the downtown transit center on Thursday. Route number 8 was adjusted this spring. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
More service, visitor information helping Capital Transit to keep up with extra cruise passenger traffic

Remedies made after residents unable to board full buses last year seem to be working, officials say

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, May 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read