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Story Publication logo September 29, 2022

How We Did It: Road to Ruin

Scenic byway

This project will help the reader see the ways the rules are twisted for short-term timber profit...

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Multiple Authors
A man walks next to the arm of heavy machinery. He stands in a deforested area.
Mark Figelski looks out over a clear-cut south of Kahli Cove roughly five miles northwest of his home in Naukati Bay, Alaska on Prince of Wales Island in September 2021. The area was among the parcels swapped from U.S. Forest Service to Alaska Mental Health Trust ownership under a federal law passed in 2017. Image by Eric Stone. United States, 2021.

In many ways, this project was a gift from Edward Boyda, a managing partner at Earthrise Media. Boyda had been examining satellite imagery for another project when he noticed what appeared to be clearcuts of old-growth forest in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, also known as “the lungs of North America.” The cuts didn’t make sense to him, since vast protections (including the Roadless Rule, which the Biden administration had recently reinstated) allegedly prevented precisely the logging he seemed to be looking at.

Presumably the clearcuts were legal; a stealth illegal logging operation in the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest—with its two million visitors each year—seemed farfetched. Instead, Boyda suspected he was looking at a loophole story, and he brought it to Grist.

It was during our first conversation about the imagery that he mentioned the notion of land swaps. A swap occurs when a federal entity like the Forest Service transfers parcels of land to a state, Indigenous nation, corporation, or quasi-state organization (like the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority) in exchange for parcels the other party isn’t able to use to their most “productive capacity.” In theory, land swaps can be a mechanism for furthering, say, both conservation and recreation goals at once. In practice, they make once-protected forest land easier to log.

The project that blossomed from these initial conversations with Boyda ultimately amounted to an investigation into the shell game in question. We wanted to know the extent to which Congressional land swaps were facilitating clear-cutting of the Tongass.

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Post-swap cuts theoretically occur on private land (i.e. outside Forest Service jurisdiction), so much of the data in which we were interested wasn’t FOIAable. Instead, we conducted most of our analysis from above. By overlaying land-transfer boundaries with the evolving boundaries of Roadless Rule protections—and a remote sensing dataset of forest loss from the past two decades—we were able to estimate the proportion of clear-cuts that occurred on transferred land. We also leveraged an Alaska state dataset of fish-bearing streams to understand in practice how federal versus private loggers behaved near these waterways. (Short answer: Private loggers are allowed to cut closer to water, and they do).

While I worked with Boyda to translate these analyses into graphic assets, Grist Senior Editor Katherine Lanpher recruited journalists on the ground in southeast Alaska. Jacob Resneck, then-editor of the non-profit radio network CoastAlaska, began wading through state forestry reports and getting public officials (including Sen. Lisa Murkowski) on the record. He also pulled in Eric Stone, news director for Ketchikan’s KRBD station, who was well positioned—geographically and editorially—to bring ground truth to our data reporting. Stone hopped on a ferry to Prince of Wales Island to talk to the people living in the path of the cuts.

By combining Stone’s reporting and photography with drone photography from a local pilot, Resneck’s public-records reporting, Boyda’s satellite analysis, and Grist’s editing, design, and visualization chops, our team was able to assemble a collaborative feature that pulled back the curtains on an otherwise innocuous policy mechanism with dire ramifications.

The Pulitzer Center’s support was fundamental in ensuring we could commission the necessary travel, photography, design, and fact-checking services that ultimately made the project sing. Aside from the Grist and KRBD publications of the investigation, versions of the story and its findings also ran subsequently in the Anchorage Daily News and via Alaska Public Media. The project recently received a 2022 Online News Association award for best feature (among small newsrooms). It was also a finalist for the Institute for Nonprofit News’ 2022 Journalism Collaboration of the Year award.

Clayton Aldern is a senior data reporter at Grist.



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