11.18.19

Ranking Member Stabenow, Chairman Grijalva Call for Investigation into Grant Used to Weaken Protections for the Tongass National Forest

Press report suggests the Forest Service awarded a grant to the State of Alaska, which allocated some of the funds to the timber industry in order to support exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, and Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ-3), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, today requested a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General investigation into whether the U.S. Forest Service improperly granted funds to the State of Alaska. Reportedly, the state used the grant to support their requested exemption from federal environmental rules.  Additionally, the state allegedly awarded a portion of the federal funds to the timber industry in order to make the case for removing environmental protections for the Tongass National Forest. 

“The Tongass is our largest National Forest and is essential to addressing the climate crisis,” wrote the lawmakers. “It is critical that we ensure this taxpayer funded grant was properly awarded and used.”

The State of Alaska has asked that the USDA consider fully exempting the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, which protects certain forests from logging and road construction to protect these lands. In October 2019, the Trump Administration published a proposal that supports exempting the Tongass from the rule.

According to a news report, the State of Alaska requested a $2 million State Fire Assistance grant, which is typically used to help communities prevent and suppress wildfires. The state allegedly used this grant to coordinate efforts to support a rulemaking to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, awarding some of the funds to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry association supportive of removing environmental protections from the Tongass. The state did not give funds to other stakeholders, including the Organized Village of Kake, a tribal government that has concerns about the impact of large-scale logging on their community.

The lawmakers are requesting an investigation into whether the Forest Service properly granted these funds to the State of Alaska and whether the funds were used appropriately.

The full text of the letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong is below. A PDF of the letter is available here.

Dear Ms. Fong:

We write to request an investigation regarding the potential misuse of a recent U.S. Forest Service (USFS) grant to the State of Alaska. We are concerned by a recent news report indicating the State of Alaska used a federal fire assistance grant for non-fire purposes, including a subgrant to a timber industry stakeholder to support a rulemaking regarding roadless area management on the Tongass National Forest.

In January 2018, the State of Alaska requested that USDA consider creating a state-specific rule to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, a rule which establishes nationwide prohibitions on harvesting timber and road construction on certain National Forest Service lands in order to protect these lands. Alaska sought a full exemption from the rule.

According to a September 24, 2019 press report on Alaska Public Media, the State of Alaska’s Fire Staff Officer requested $2 million in grant funding, apparently under a State fire assistance grant, which is typically used to help communities prevent and suppress wildfires. The documentation in this press report shows the purpose for seeking the grant funding was to cooperate and coordinate in carrying out the rulemaking to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. According to this press report, the State of Alaska awarded some of the funds from this grant to the Alaska Forest Association, an industry trade association advancing the business interests of Alaska’s timber industry. The press report also notes that funding was not granted to other stakeholders, including the Organized Village of Kake, a tribal government that has concerns about the impact of large-scale logging on their community.

The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978’s grant authorities appear to primarily, or even wholly, provide financial assistance to states for the prevention and suppression of fires on non-Federal forest lands. However, Alaska’s revised application for these funds contains no mention of fire activities and indicates they will be used to help fulfill their cooperating agency responsibilities for their petition to the USFS to revise the Roadless Rule on federal lands.

The Tongass is our largest National Forest and is essential to addressing the climate crisis. It is critical that we ensure this taxpayer funded grant was properly awarded and used. We request an investigation into whether the Forest Service properly granted these funds to the State of Alaska and whether the funds were used appropriately.

In reviewing this matter, we ask that you investigate the following questions:

  1. Under what specific grant program was the $2 million grant to the State of Alaska awarded, and was the grant to the State of Alaska described above properly awarded, including being awarded for purposes allowed under the grant program? 

  2. What was this grant funding used for, and was it properly used by the State of Alaska and any subgrantees, including the Alaska Forest Association?

  3. Were other Alaska stakeholders such as the Organized Village of Kake made aware of or awarded any funding to support their abilities to assist in the rulemaking?

  4. What communication between the USFS, the State of Alaska, the Alaska Forest Association, or any of its members led to the State’s request for this grant funding? 

  5. Is it permissible for the USFS to grant federal funds to a state to enable it to help convince USDA to grant the rule change it had requested?

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