THE LIGHTBULB

Newly released documents show the Trump administration has struck an unusual deal with the state of Alaska and the state’s timber industry, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars so logging companies can help pick which mature trees should be cut in an upcoming sale in the Tongass National Forest.

The contract has the U.S. Forest Service providing up to $300,000 annually, for up to five years, for the state to pay the Alaska Forest Association to scope out which trees can be logged via helicopter over 14,000 acres. The trees will be part of a 1.8 million-acre sale on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.

The plan is just one of several ways the Trump administration is changing logging nationwide. 

Earthjustice staff attorney Tom Waldo said in an interview that federal experts — not the logging industry itself — should identify the trees, since they are charged with balancing the forest’s commercial appeal with protecting its overall health and the species within it. Earthjustice, which is challenging the sale on the grounds that the Forest Service has failed to fully inform the public about it, obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the Energy 202.

“Here they’re vesting a really lot of power in the hands of someone with a very specific interest in the timber,” Waldo said. “The very best trees for logging are also the best trees for wildlife habitat.”

But Alaska State Forester John “Chris” Maisch said in an email that the logging site was selected during the Obama administration, that it underwent extensive environmental review and that any final decisions are made by government officials. The Forest Service staff lacks the expertise to pick the trees that are both commercially appealing and can be safely felled and lifted via helicopter, he said.

Industry foresters are working with Forest Service staff “in the units and are not doing this work independently.” Maisch said.

“It’s a team effort with experienced foresters passing this skill set to the next generation,” he said, adding that protections are put in place if trees with bird nests “or other sensitive habitat is identified.” 

Sharon Gleason, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, has granted a preliminary injunction halting the broader Prince of Wales timber sale on the grounds that the Forest Service did not provide enough details about which trees will be cut, what roads will need to be built and what will be the environmental impacts. The court will hear oral arguments in the case next month.

Neither the Forest Service nor the Alaska Forest Association responded to requests for comment.

Last year, the Trump administration proposed allowing logging on more than half of the 16.7 million-acre Tongass in southeast Alaska, despite concerns about fragmenting animal habitat and undermining the region's bustling tourism industry. The move would reverse long-standing limits on tree cutting in the Tongass instituted under Bill Clinton.

The Forest Service also put forward in June a sweeping set of proposed rule changes that would expedite environmental reviews required for logging on not just Alaska’s public lands, but throughout the Lower 48.

Yet when speaking publicly, Trump often touts the importance of preserving forests. Just last week, the president pledged to join the One Trillion Tree initiative, which is aimed at combating climate change through planting saplings.

“In doing so, we will continue to show strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and our forests,” Trump told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The kind of helicopter logging being considered for Prince of Wales Island requires less road building than traditional logging because felled trees are lifted in bundles out of the forest. According to the documents, the timber association is receiving more than 86 percent of the funds the Forest Service is paying the state for the work.

One of the pacts, dubbed a “challenge cost share agreement,” also makes it clear federal officials see logging old-growth trees on the country’s largest national forest as a way to bolster struggling timber companies in southeast Alaska.

“The U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Division of Forestry agree that maintaining a viable forest products industry is critical for maintaining a healthy regional economy,” it states.

Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, said it is understandable that the Forest Service wants to tap the expertise of those in the private sector. “The only people who know how to pick out these trees are the old timers.”

But he added that it is crucial to involve the public in these decisions, especially since the most massive cedar and spruce trees in the Tongass stand the best chance of propagating their species. “You want them to put out seeds, because there’s a reason they’re a thousand years old.” 

POWER PLAYS

— Davos elite are interested in combating climate change, to a point: Nearly everyone attending the events at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week pledged to join the “1 trillion tree” initiative to plant trees to help capture carbon by 2030. But there was much more hesitance on other ideas, including a carbon tax, The Post’s Heather Long reports.

  • What some leaders are saying: U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said implementing a carbon tax is a “tax on hard-working people.” But Mnuchin’s remarks “did not sit well with European leaders. Numerous European officials, from Britain’s Prince Charles to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, took to the Davos stage to endorse putting a price on carbon,” Long adds.
  • Why it matters: “The hesitancy among some corporate leaders to do a real assessment of carbon risk shows how far there is to go to see wide-scale mitigation, advocates say. Activists blasted Davos attendees for paying lip service to the environment but not actually doing much.”

— Mnuchin’s wife backed Greta in now-deleted Instagram post, After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin mocked Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, his wife Louise Linton appeared to side with the teenager in a now-deleted post, Politico writes. “I stand with Greta on this issue. (I don’t have a degree in economics either),” Linton wrote, adding, “We need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels. 

  • The context: Mnuchin suggested during a news conference at Davos that the teenager should go to college and study economics before making recommendations to global leaders. “Is she the chief economist or who is she? I’m confused,” he joked.

— The EPA is allowing cities to release untreated sewage into rivers: The federal government is letting cities delay or change federally imposed upgrades to their sewer systems, actions that enable raw sewage to continue to pour into rivers, the New York Times reports. It’s the latest way the Trump administration has moved to roll back environmental regulations, bending to cities concerned about the cost of meeting federal requirements. 

  • Why it matters: “While officials in many of these cities praise the Trump administration’s flexibility, environmentalists say that the changes threaten safety by allowing pathogens and chemicals to keep flowing into rivers and along beaches and to back up into streets or basements during storms.”
  • Meanwhile, in Washington: "For instance, Washington, D.C., which is considering whether to renegotiate its own deal with the E.P.A., is currently drilling the second of three mammoth tunnels designed for one thing: to hold 190 million gallons of untreated sewage and storm water. The tunnels will be used when the city’s aging sewer system is overwhelmed, so that untreated wastewater doesn’t flow into the Anacostia River, as it now does 15 to 20 times a year...The tunnel being dug beneath Washington shows the scale of the efforts required to comply with the federal rules."

— Untouched funds for hurricane victims in Florida: Three years after Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Hermine hit the state, nearly $900 million in federal disaster aid has not yet been doled out, Politico reports.

  • There's a lot of red tape: “The state, like many others, is caught in the bureaucratic knot that governs disaster relief funds administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development...Some states have coped by setting up their own bureaucracies specifically to manage HUD disaster relief block grants. Not so Florida, the state most vulnerable to hurricane damage,” per the report. “There, the biggest obstacle to disaster relief is the Department of Economic Opportunity, which currently is standing between residents — some living in or near poverty — and $891.5 million in HUD block grants.”
  • What’s more: The state is now expecting another $735.5 million from the federal government for Hurricane Michael. Some local leaders are pushing to manage the fund themselves.

— Australia’s emissions effectively double amid fires: The blazes have released enough greenhouse gases to double the country’s annual carbon emissions, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports. The fires have released about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide. 

  • By comparison: “According to the Global Carbon Project, in 2018, Australia emitted 421 million tons of carbon dioxide, making it the 16th-largest emitter worldwide, ranking just above Britain. Usually, fire-related emissions are not included in annual estimates of a country’s emissions, because such pollutants tend to be reabsorbed over time.” 
  • Why it matters: In a usual fire year, the carbon emitted by fires can be reabsorbed by forests during a future wet season. But Guido van der Werf, who helps maintain the Global Fire Emissions Database, said the vast devastation of forests amid these fires could make it impossible for them to ever absorb all that carbon dioxide. 

— A massive red-wine spill: A leak in a 97,000-gallon tank of cabernet sauvignon at a winery in Northern California caused tens of thousands of gallons of red wine to pour into nearby waterways. Chris O’Gorman, spokesman for Rodney Strong Vineyards, said the vineyard is investigating the cause and is “deeply concerned and are doing everything in our power to protect our waterways,” the Associated Press reports

  • The details: “According to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which was notified of the accident on Wednesday, about 20% of the 97,112 gallons spilled were contained. Estimates showed anywhere between 46,000 and 96,000 gallons reached the Russian River,” per the AP. “Rodney Strong contracted with two vacuum truck operators to clean up the spill, and tried to assemble a dam in the creek, Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Elson said. The containment measure was unsuccessful, since water was flowing faster because of the recent rains.”

— Critical numbers for California’s monarch butterflies: Nonprofit environmental group Xerces Society says the monarch butterfly population in the state is critically low for the second year in a row. According to an annual count, there were 29,418 monarchs counted this year, just 2,200 more than the all-time low population counted during the 2018-2019 year. The latest finding “comes as a result of greater survey effort, with volunteers visiting more sites. There is no meaningful difference between the western monarch population this year and last,” according to a news release. 

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on "The Importance of Public Disclosure Requirements for Protecting Human Health, the Climate, and the Environment" on Tuesday.
  • The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry holds a hearing on reviewing implementation of Farm Bill conservation programs on Tuesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Energy holds a hearing on the impact of wildfires on the power sector and the environment on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing "to examine stakeholder perspectives on the importance of the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board" on Wednesday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— A call out from The Post's Lisa Rein: