Below please find SEACC and Defenders of Wildlife's submitted scoping comments on the proposed South Revilla Project on July 31, 2019. You can find out more about the South Revilla project on the United States Forest Service website.
Ketchikan Misty Fjords Ranger District
Sent via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
re: Revised Notice of Intent for South Revilla Integrated Resource Project (IRP)
Please accept the following scoping comments on the Revised NOI for the South Revilla IRP on behalf of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) and Defenders of Wildlife.
These comments begin with a cautionary tale. Although the Revised NOI avoids using the term “condition-based” NEPA, given the number of forest, transportation, watershed, wildlife habitat, and recreation management opportunities possible in the project area over the next 15 years, we are definitely concerned with how the agency conducts this NEPA analysis. Instead of deferring final decisions regarding specific activities for the Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis project until the agency disclosed and evaluated the precise timing, size, and location of the proposed activities, including the selection of appropriate design components or mitigation measures, the Forest Supervisor prematurely adopted a selected alternative. This is precisely the type of environmentally blind decision-making Congress intended NEPA to avoid. As a result, neither the Forest Service nor the public could adequately analyze the site-specific impacts and alternatives proposed and make a reasoned choice among the alternatives. The Forest Service is now defending the decision before the Alaska Federal District Court in Southeast Alaska Conservation Council et al. v. U.S. Forest Service et al., Case No. 1:19-cv-00006-SLG.
As the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) has explained, programmatic (or landscape) analyses should be explicit about what decision is being made at the broad scale, and what decision space is deferred to a future project: “If subsequent actions remain to be analyzed and decided upon, that would be explained in the programmatic document and left to a subsequent tiered NEPA review.”1 Because site-specific impacts cannot be assessed at the programmatic or landscape level, these impacts must be evaluated “when the agency proposes to make an irreversible and irretrievable commitment of the availability of resources which usually occurs following a tiered site- or project-specific NEPA review.”2
Consequently, any so-called project-specific EIS prepared for public review and comment must disclose and evaluate all the site-specific information necessary to comply with NEPA, Title VIII of ANILCA, the 2016 Tongass Plan Amendment, and the Tongass Timber Reform Act. Site-specific information in an EIS is essential for a meaningful analysis of impacts and alternative because the landscape in South Revilla varies, and use of the landscape—by
humans and by wildlife—varies. Subsistence is an inherently location-specific activity rooted not only in access to resources, but in human geography, history, and clan relationships.
Because of its proximity to Ketchikan, Saxman, and Metlakatla, the South Revilla project area is an important deer hunting area for these communities. Given the existing and reasonably foreseeable cumulative impacts from logging and road building on old-growth across all land ownerships within and adjacent to the South Revilla project area, we have serious concerns about the impact from additional old-growth logging within this project area on the distribution and abundance of deer for subsistence and sport use. The most recent NEPA analysis for lands within the project area between George and Carroll Inlets concluded, “[c]urrent deer populations on Revillagigedo Island are thought to be at very low levels.” See Saddle Lakes FEIS at 3-175 (2015). The resulting habitat reductions will cause substantial adverse effects to subsistence use of deer for these communities and result in increased competition for local hunters. For these reasons, maintaining connectivity across the entire project area is a significant issue for this project.
A. Purpose and Need
In general, we support efforts by the agency to take an integrated approach for meeting multiple resource objectives in its planning. Given the history of intensive resource development in the project area on lands owned by the Forest Service, Native Corporations, State of Alaska, and Alaska Mental Health Trust, we acknowledge a need to “restore watershed function, enhance or restore fish and wildlife habitat, and develop recreation opportunities in the Shelter Cove, Shoal Cove, and Thorne Arm areas.”
We disagree, however, with the conclusion that “[t]here is a need to provide a sustainable level of forest products to contribute to the economic sustainability of the region [and] preserve a viable industry by providing timber volume in an economically efficient manner.” The current timber industry has shrunk to a fraction of what it was in the past. Today’s timber industry represents far less than one percent of Southeast Alaska’s jobs or earnings.3 According to the State of Alaska’s own economic experts, the Tongass timber industry has been in a state of decline primarily because of permanent and fundamental changes in global timber markets, high labor costs, and far distance from markets.4 No amount of wishful thinking or taxpayer subsidies can alter the economic reality facing today’s Tongass timber industry – the costs associated with accessing and logging timber on these remote, rugged lands far exceeds the value for which a logger can sell the timber. This explains why no one bid on a proposed Tongass timber sale on North Kuiu Island last fall, even after the agency spent over $3 million taxpayer dollars building roads for the industry and authorized the export of nearly all of that sale’s logs without any local
manufacture.5 Consequently, we recommend revising the purpose and need for the South Revilla IRP from “preserv[ing] a viable industry” to supporting “appropriately-scaled wood products industries” in the project area.6
Like the Forest Service, SEACC and Defenders support the agency’s stated purpose of “contributing to the economic stability of the region.” We must question, however, the agency’s underlying assumption that the region’s economic vitality depends on 15 more years of old growth logging in this project area. The EIS must disclose any data relied upon by the Forest Service to corroborate its assumption that the federally subsidizing (at a net loss) the Tongass timber program is a cost effective method to generate long term local and regional economic vitality and resilience in the region. This assumption’s accuracy is a significant issue for this project and accurate data and analysis is necessary to assess its reliability and enable the agency and public to make informed decisions regarding economic tradeoffs related to proposed resource management choices. According to Southeast by the Numbers 2018, supra note 1, the tourism and seafood industries support over a quarter of the jobs in Southeast Alaska. According to data analyzed by the U.S. Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2018, “[v]alue added for the outdoor recreation economy is comparable in size to both the mining and utilities industries according to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).”7
The South Revilla project enables the Forest Service to assess the outdoor recreation and visitor industry’s contribution to the economy of Revillagigedo Island and Southeast Alaska.
B. Transportation Management
When the South Revilla project was first proposed in 2018, the agency contemplated it would include logging “about 60 million board feet of [old-growth] timber from up to 6,000 acres over the course of 15 years.” 83 Fed. Reg. 39050 (Aug. 8, 2018). The Proposed Action called for constructing about 30 miles of new National Forest System road, reconstructing about 104 miles of existing roads, and constructing about 105 miles of temporary roads. Id.
Given the adverse impacts and relatively small economic contribution associated with the
logging industry, this analysis would test the Forest Service’s assumption that pursuing this
project would represent a cost-effective way of benefitting the regional economy.
The 2019 Revised NOI reduces the proposed action from “60 million board feet of old- growth timber from up to 6,000 acres” to “5,500 of old growth forested land and about 1,000 acres of young growth . . . using one or more timber sales . . . over the course of 15 years.” 84 Fed. Reg. 31288, 31,289. Even more telling is the substantial reduction in new road construction proposed, from 30 to 10 miles. Likewise, road reconstruction drops from 104 to 65 miles of road, and temporary road construction drops from 105 miles to about 45 miles. Id.
Given the extensive logging that has occurred on all land ownerships within and adjacent to the South Revilla project area, and the focus on economic efficiency, the costs of road building is a significant issue for this proposal, as well as the question of who pays those costs. What are the implications of these choices on the agency’s balancing of competing interests under NEPA, title VIII of ANILCA, and the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA)? It also explains why Sealaska seized the opportunity earlier this year to make millions of dollars selling carbon credits in California’s cap-and-trade market by preserving thousands of acres of its old- growth forest for the next 110 years.8 The proposed DEIS must take a hard look at the actual barriers that make Tongass logging uneconomic and explain how the proposed action, and alternatives to that proposal, address these barriers.
C. Watershed and Wildlife Habitat Management
The Revised NOI drops qualifying language contained in the 2018 NOI that the wildlife habitat treatments "would move habitat toward favorable wildlife conditions.” Why?
D. Proposed Plan Amendment
In 2018, the agency only proposed the lowering of Scenic Integrity Objectives; in 2019 it added a “modification of a small old-growth reserve.” Modifications require the completion of a project level review to ensure that OGRs meet Forest Plan Appendix K criteria while addressing other forest-wide multiple use goals and objectives. The existing OGR maintains a large block of highly productive old growth associated with riparian areas and wind-protected uplands. This OGR also provides connectivity between George Inlet Salt Chuck and Naha LUD II. The 2008 Forest Plan adopted the biologically preferred IOGR for VCU 7470. The OGR contains the widest corridor to improve habitat connectivity between Naha and George Inlet salt lagoon, maintains the large block of high-POG within the VCU, maintains high value, south facing winter range at low elevations, includes important Class I riparian habitat, and includes rare features such as large tree SD67 habitat and R10 Sensitive plants. An interagency review team reviewed the location and habitat composition of the OGR in 2013 for the Saddle Lakes project. This review confirmed that the 2008 OGR was still in the biologically preferred location and the rationale for the OGR remained unchanged.9
To comply the Tongass Plan, the Forest Service will need to conduct a project-level review as described in Appendix K to assure that the small OGR for VCU 7470 both meets Forest Plan OGR criteria and addresses forest-wide multiple use goals and objectives. After conducting an Interagency
Review Process to define the biologically preferred OGR location, the Forest Service must incorporate the biologically preferred OGR into an alternative in the EIS and develop a viable project that avoids conflicts with it. The South Revilla EIS must also evaluate whether the proposed modification could significantly affect the integrity of the Conservation Strategy.
E. Proposed Alternative
Given the scale and intensity of past development in this project area, and the continued pressure for resource extraction from these and surrounding forest lands, we recommend the Forest Service develop and consider at least one alternative that:
Develops diverse economic opportunities to support ecological and community health over the long-term. This includes fish and wildlife habitat restoration and improvement, development of recreation facilities, high value-added wood product manufacturing, and renewable energy development.
Maintains and improves fish and wildlife habitat productivity to support subsistence, sport and commercial harvest of fish and game.
Designs old growth logging to maintain productivity, structural complexity, and understory diversity in high-value winter range.
Improves wildlife habitat in young-growth stands for deer, bear, marten, wolf, goshawk, murrelets, and flying squirrel by maintaining, prolonging, and/or improving understory forage production and accelerating development of old-growth characteristics in young-growth stands.
Improves ecological resiliency, given impacts from climate change.
Drops all logging units that would sever habitat connectivity or substantially restrict wildlife movement between protected patches of old growth forest, or between high elevation summer habitats and low elevation wintering areas.
Substantially reduces the amount of new and temporary road construction from levels identified
in the Proposed Action.
Thank you for considering these scoping comments.
Buck Lindekugel, Grassroots Attorney Southeast Alaska Conservation Council 2207 Jordan Ave.
Juneau, AK 99801
SEACC & Defenders Scoping Comments South Revilla Project
July 31, 2019
Patrick Lavin, Alaska Policy Advisor Defenders of Wildlife
441 W. 5th Ave., Suite 302 Anchorage, AK 99507
1 Memorandum from Michael Boots, CEQ, to Heads of Federal Departments and Agencies, “Effective Use of Programmatic NEPA Reviews” at 15 (Dec. 18, 2014).
2 Id. at 27.
3 For the record, we attach Southeast Alaska by the Numbers 2018, A Southeast Conference Publication by Rain Forest Data at 3-4, 9 (Sept. 2018). Although the pie charts on page 4 inflate the importance of timber by mixing it with the Information (publishing, broadcasting, and telecomm.), Warehousing, Utilities, and Non-visitor Transport sectors, the actual numbers show that timber represents less than 1 percent of both jobs and earnings in the region.
4 See Gilbertson & Robinson, Natural Resources Mining and Timber, Alaska Economic Trends (Dec. 2003)(attached)
5 Attached for the record: North Kuiu #2 Timber Sale Prospectus (June 5, 2018); Kuiu Road & Bridge Replacement Contract Modification (Sept. 3, 2015); Kuiu Rd. & Bridge Replacement Contract (April 24, 2014).
6 We borrow this term from the Landscape Strategy for the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative (attached for the record) and it appears well suited to meeting TLMP’s Goal of “[p]rovid[ing] a diversity of opportunities for resource uses that contribute to the local and regional economies of Southeast Alaska.”
7 See September 2018 issue of Survey of Current Business (attached). Pursuant to the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act of 2016, Pub. L. 114-249 (Dec. 8. 2016), the U.S. Department of Commerce has added estimates of the size and scope of the U.S. outdoor recreation economy for the first time in 2016 and again in 2018. The next release is scheduled for Fall 2019. Because the law requires the Dept. of Commerce to consult with the Secretaries from Agriculture and Interior, the Forest Service should have access to, and disclose, data regarding the contribution of the outdoor recreation industry in Southeast Alaska, and particularly the Tongass National Forest. See also, 2016 TLMP FEIS, Table 3.22-3 at p.3-481 (using data compiled for the Southeast Conference).
8 Attached for the record: Jenkins, KTOO News, Sealaska Corporation announces multimillion dollar deal to keep trees in the ground (April 9, 2018); Bullinger, Outside Online, How to Make Millions While Saving a Forest (May 7, 2018).
9 See 740_1004_IOGReport.pdf (July 25, 2013)(from the Saddle Lakes project record)