Don’t forget about Whale Pass

Comment period ends on Feb. 28 for timber sales schedule affecting Prince of Wales Island community

February 16, 2023 4:00 pm
An outdoor excursion for participants of the Prince of Wales Island Unit 2 Deer Summit held in October 2022. (Photo by Maranda Hamme)

An outdoor excursion for participants of the Prince of Wales Island Unit 2 Deer Summit held in October 2022. (Photo by Maranda Hamme)

On Jan. 27, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry & Fire Protection released its Preliminary Five-Year Schedule of Timber Sales for the Southern Southeast Area for 2023 to 2027. More old-growth timber sales are up for comment, including El Capitan, and one you may remember — the Whale Pass timber sale.

This public process follows the draft Forest Land Use Plan comment period which ended Oct. 17, 2022. That particular period put a decent spotlight on the state timber sale of 292 acres of old-growth in — and we mean in — the 2017-incorporated town of Whale Pass on the north end of Prince of Wales Island. 

“It got a lot more attention than I was expecting, especially with the radio blips and articles and everything,” says Jimmy Greeley, member of the Friends of Whale Pass who now sits on the Whale Pass City Council — something he never thought he’d do — as a result of the group’s work in fighting the sale.

There are multiple reasons this sale got special media attention, but tops may be the distance between a proposed clearcut and people’s homes.

In a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy from Whale Pass Mayor Dawn Waldal-Anderson (a response to a statement made by Southeast Area Forester Greg Staunton, who said “the only way to stop it now is by order of the Governor or the Commissioner”), she highlights how the Department of Natural Resources is “proposing a mere 100ft buffer zone between the clearcut and resident property lines which raises concerns about windthrows, blowdowns and landslides directly above their homes.”

And let’s be real, it wouldn’t look great. 

“Our home is at the top of the property,” Greeley says. “It’s basically 200 feet from the house.” 

Like many, Greeley has two neighbors. 

Greeley says one neighbor stresses the trees on the hillside behind his home weren’t going to be logged when he purchased his home — it wasn’t good enough timber. “He wouldn’t have even bought this property 25 years ago if he knew they were gonna clearcut right above it,” Greeley says. 

The other neighbor just bought the property and was unaware of plans to log 100 feet from the property line. 

“Whoa, that’s close,” he tells Greeley.

“Yeah, real close,” Greeley says.

But the Whale Pass timber sale wouldn’t just affect these particular residents.

“The entire viewshed of Whale Pass will be destroyed for generations,” says Katie Rooks, environmental policy analyst for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and 20-year resident of Klawock on Prince of Wales. “The current view for summer lodge visitors, a nice timbered hillside with houses under big cedars, will look like a moonscape.”

The mayor’s letter echoes that sentiment and also goes after the state of Alaska. “A clearcut in this location would leave visitors with a less than ideal impression of how the State manages the balance between natural resource development, environmental impact on its people, wildlife and unparalleled majestic scenery.”

The recently released 2022 SeaBank Annual Report has a whole chapter about logging threats to recreation and tourism.  

Clearcutting degrades the recreation experience for tourists and residents, lessening the “marketability of Southeast Alaska as an adventure-travel destination,” it reads. “Timber industry activities can displace visitors from large areas for decades because they change the non-industrial character of the landscape, displace wildlife and harm their habitat, reducing the value of SeaBank cultural services as an adventure destination.”

Greeley has tourism top of mind, too. 

“You can see the hillside from anywhere in town, so it’s gonna drastically change what the town even looks like,” he says. “[Tourists] come and do self-guided hunting, fishing, have summer vacation homes, properties, it’s gonna drastically change that.”

Hunting. That’s another big one.

If the Final Forest Land Use Plan for Whale Pass includes no meaningful changes, it means the area’s last reaches of fairly healthy salmon streams will be impacted. But there’s also the Sitka black-tailed deer — the “main subsistence game animal on POW,” Rooks says of Prince of Wales.

SeaBank states that POW produces nearly 25% of the statewide deer harvest and notes that biologists expect the POW deer population to decline thanks to habitat loss caused by logging. “The substantial and disproportionate 40% loss of large-tree forestlands to logging on northern Prince of Wales Island contributes to one-half of the winter deer habitat lost so far,” it reads.

Rooks says the Whale Pass and El Capitan sales are predominantly old-growth timber in important areas of connectivity between low-elevation beach habitat and higher subalpine and alpine areas. “This is a critically important habitat for POW given the state’s own dire statements about the declining deer population,” she says.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in the next five to 10 years, previously logged areas will reach the closed canopy stem exclusion stage. Meaning “large tracts of land will be converted to extremely poor deer habitat,” and therefore, “deer numbers are expected to decline.”

Maranda Hamme, Tongass forest program manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and lifelong POW resident, says old-growth, essential habitat for deer and salmon populations, is vital to herself and other subsistence hunters on POW.

“The 12 rural communities that make up Prince of Wales do not have access to large supply chain grocery stores. Therefore, many residents rely heavily off the land as a source of food, livelihood, and a way of life,” Hamme says. “Here on POW, we know our old growth is worth so much. Why doesn’t the state of Alaska see that?”

Hamme stresses that information presented by the Department of Fish and Game and other agencies at the 2022 Deer Summit (held last October, partially at the Craig Tribal Association hall) shows that the deer population has clearly declined in the past 10 years, never mind the next 10 years. The summit focused on the local game management area, also known as “Unit 2,” which includes Prince of Wales Island and multiple nearby islands. 

“Protecting our remaining old growth is critical for us on Prince of Wales Island,” she says. “This was one thing that was brought up continuously at the Unit 2 Deer Summit by our Tribal leaders.”

And there are other concerns, many of which are outlined in Mayor Waldal-Anderson’s letter to Gov. Dunleavy.

Whale Pass does not yet have the infrastructure for water and sewer, so many homes rely on the watershed from the forest above as their household water source. Residents have safety concerns over sharing the roads with logging trucks. The last 8 miles on the Prince of Wales Island road system is treacherous, unpaved driving. Residents, many seniors and children, use the roads for walking and cycling. Whale Pass was also reporting 40% COVID positivity rates at one point, but the legal process for the timber sale “marched on not taking into consideration the setback we were experiencing due to mandates and requirements made on public gatherings,” reads the mayor’s letter. Even the last public meeting occurred as residents were still dealing with the effects of record snowfall. Many hadn’t even returned home after the unprecedented winter.

Then there’s the hope for compassion.

“We are talking about only a portion of the 290 acres slated to be logged in Whale Pass,” Waldal-Anderson writes. “Surely reasonably minded leaders can see the dilemma we face and show wisdom and mercy.”

That plea may come from the state’s reputation on POW. Whale Pass would have multiple, unforgotten predecessors, like Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove, Edna Bay, and others.

“What the state wants, it takes from POW,” Rooks says. “In all reality, the state views POW as its timber crop, and when you add all the logging together here, from all ownerships, it’s unsustainable to continue to take the bits that are left.”

Greeley says a group reached out from Petersburg saying they successfully, though litigiously, fought a timber sale in their backyard. With that, and support from the community, Greeley’s able to stay positive. He hopes the state hears his voice, the voices of Whale Pass, and the voices of others who may go on record concerning Whale Pass and El Capitan. 

But if commenters need any inspiration in drafting their say, here’s his overall viewpoint.

“This sale doesn’t really need to happen,” he says. “It’s not a major unit of forest. It’s gonna take a lot of money to put the roads in there to get a very minimal amount of trees. And it’s gonna disrupt a lot more than just a regular clearcut of the side of a highway — it’s next to people’s houses.”

The public has till Feb. 28 to comment on any aspect of the Five-Year Schedule of Timber Sales at [email protected].


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Lauren Cusimano
Lauren Cusimano

Lauren Cusimano is the communications lead for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the communications chair on the board of the Juneau Audubon Society. She lives in Juneau.