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USDA watchdog to review forestry grant that went to logging group

USDA watchdog to review forestry grant that went to logging group
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The internal watchdog at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has agreed to lawmakers’ request to investigate whether grants from the agency funded efforts to lobby for reduced protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. 

Democrats in the House and Senate asked for the investigation in November after reports in Alaska media that a $2 million federal grant to help prepare for potential changes in forest protections was, in part, funneled to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group.

That group received $200,000 of the grant, according to a report from Alaska Public Media, contributing to state efforts to lobby for changes to the “roadless rule” that blocks logging development in forests by limiting access to vehicles.

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“The Tongass is America’s largest national forest, and protecting it is a critical part of addressing the climate crisis,” Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee ranking member Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowRepublican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race Lobbying world Senate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  MORE (D-Mich.) said in a statement.

“This impartial review will help us discover whether taxpayer dollars were misused to threaten one of our most important natural resources.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

Beyond whether the USDA grants, distributed through its U.S. Forest Service, were improperly handed away, lawmakers also have questions about how the overall grant itself came to deal with the roadless rule.

The $2 million in funds were originally intended for grants to combat wildfires, but it was later modified to allow Alaska to use it to weigh in on changes to the roadless rule.

“Alaskan officials have no right to waste taxpayer money weakening a rule that protects the Tongass and the public owners of the land. Congressionally appropriated funds need to be used as they were intended, not to prop up efforts to open more of our national forests to extraction at public expense,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.  

Ethics officials previously questioned why USDA had changed the provision of the grant.

“The state has said, ‘Change the rule.’ And the federal government, which wrote the rule ... turns around and says, ‘Here’s $2 million to help you convince us to change the rule.’ And that’s just weird,” Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group, told Alaska Public Media.