The following commentary is from David Beebe, a regular commenter on this blog, who also happens to be a resident and commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska for the past 30 years. These timber sales, specifically the Big Thorne timber sale, have been discussed on this blog numerous times in the past.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We’re all familiar with this thought experiment in observation and perception.
So what if an investigation by the Washington Office (WO) of the US Forest Service visits the Petersburg, and Thorne Bay Ranger Districts reviewing the Tonka and Big Thorne timber sales, and they conclude in a report never intended to be made public, that thousands of trees fell in our public forest illegally? Does it make a sound in local newsprint when finally revealed? Not a peep was heard from the Petersburg Pilot on what would surely merit the highest level of local, and regional if not national newsworthiness.
Does the loss of millions of dollars in revenues to the communities of Petersburg and Thorne Bay make a sound on local public radio? Well, no. Although there were two CoastAlaska news reports, the first one misleadingly claimed the agency findings of fact were merely accusations by an environmental group regarding “mishandled timber sales.” The title of the second news report would have us believe the Big Thorne timber Sale was “short on timber,” and simply “a mistake.” At no time was the Tonka timber sale out of Petersburg ever mentioned in either of these stories.
A timber sale requires a contract which once signed, is a binding legal agreement enforceable by law. The WO investigation team determined the contract was neither enforced, nor could a valid copy be provided upon request. But that’s not all. Many more records necessary to assure proper oversight of millions of dollars in public resources were also found— to not exist.
There’s one of two possibilities here. Either public records exist, records necessary to assure the public that laws were followed — including the prevention of timber theft — or those records were destroyed to protect the perpetrators.
These systematic failures to comply with law on two different ranger districts in two separate timber sales can hardly be a “mistake.” The WO findings of monetary losses to municipalities were raised during a recent open house on the central Tongass planning to Tongass Forest supervisor, Earl Stewart. Stewart tried to dodge the question, was heckled, but still feigned ignorance of the WO findings of fact. This exchange was omitted from CoastAlaska’s news coverage of the meeting. Large-scale timber theft on the Tongass has been well documented in a white paper published in 1996. 20 years later, all the carefully designed agency methods to assure that this doesn’t happen again were systematically ignored in the Petersburg and Thorne Bay Ranger districts.
So either there is a system of gross maladministration, mismanagement and incompetence on the Petersburg and Thorne Bay Ranger Districts, or there exists a conspiracy of willful disregard of agency protocols, public trust, and public laws.
As Ani Difranco has noted, freedom of the press is meaningless if the press refuses to ask questions. News production is often referred to as the first draft of history, and this astonishing investigation revealing millions of dollars of taxpayer losses to the Petersburg borough and the community of Thorne Bay never made the local news roundup of 2017.
This April 4th will mark a full year since the public was first alerted to this Washington Office investigation, and it is time to hold accountable, not only the agency perpetrators, but the gatekeepers of local news.
A forensic accounting of this matter is essential.
David Beebe has been a Southeast Alaska resident and commercial fisherman for over 3 decades, During that time, he has closely followed issues related to environmental, social and economic policy, and has served on several non-profit boards, and council seats.