Public lands surround Southeast Alaskans. The 17 million acre Tongass National Forest is where residents go to hike, camp, fish, and gather food to nourish their families and wood to warm their homes. It’s where kids hunt their first buck and where friends gossip while munching on succulent salmon berries.
There are other integral values that Southeast Alaskans derive from public lands too: economic values. Tourists flock to soak in vast untrammeled Alaskan views and the majority of salmon begin their lives in streams among the trees. There is untapped economic opportunity as well and in Sitka, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local entrepreneurs are exploring options for cultivating small businesses using resources on public lands.
Salvaging a business on the Tongass
Zach LaPerriere grew up in Ketchikan but has since built his home and raised his family in Sitka. He’s always gravitated toward the woods.
“From boat building to construction, woodworking has always paid the bills for me,” LaPerriere said.
He runs a business out of his humble one-room home nestled in the forest. In his open studio overlooking Silver Bay, he turns bowls from dead trees that he salvages from the Tongass National Forest.
“Making bowls satisfied something in me because I was involved at every single step in the process from selecting and harvesting the raw material in the forest right to handing a customer a finished bowl. That really attracted me,” LaPerriere said.
He’s building his business from the ground up, literally. Wandering through the temperate rainforest, LaPerriere seeks out ideal dead trees, applies for the necessary permits, turns the bowls on his lathe, grows his business and hones his technique as he goes. His family partakes in the process and his wife Jenn Lawlor supports with marketing.
“Local woods are harder to turn and they take more skill but we live a deliberate life here where we try to live as local as we can and stay connected to this vast place. We don’t buy meat, we don’t buy fish; it all comes from the forest and ocean here,” he said.
LaPerriere is also deliberate about his choice to salvage wood on public lands.
“Public lands are getting used here and are providing jobs in huge ways with tourism and fishing for example but there is tremendous untapped potential and that is part of the reason I pursued getting wood off of public land versus private. I really felt like why not be an example for what can be done here,” LaPerriere said. “I’m not getting rich off of a new business making bowls but it is something and it is contributing to my family’s livelihood and it’s growing. It takes a few people to show what change can be done on the Tongass.”
And his customers love it too. “It’s a way for me to show people, like this gentleman in Ohio who just bought a couple of my bowls for example, his public lands. That wood came from his forest and that’s amazing. Even if he never comes to Alaska, he is going to have a little piece of a tree on the Tongass that he and more than 300 million other Americans share,” he said. “It’s meaningful.”
Spruce tips, mushrooms, berries and more
LaPerriere isn’t the only individual hoping to catalyze small business exploration on public lands. The Sitka Ranger District (SRD) is making headway in the region.
“Right now, we have the first special forest product permit issued on the Tongass ever to my knowledge and it was for 150 pounds of spruce tips this year,” SRD District Ranger Perry Edwards said.
Special forest product permits are issued for the commercial use of forest resources like berries, spruce tips and mushrooms. This particular permit is being used to explore selling spruce tips to home beer brewers across online markets.
Harvesting resources like spruce tips and berries requires a public review process. The Forest Service adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to ensure that commercial activity on public lands does not harm the environment and is done so sustainably, responsibly and in the best interest of the many stakeholders who share rights to these forest resources.
“We have NEPA — cleared up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips from the Sitka Ranger District. We worked with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, community members, and our silviculturist and biologists to look at every possible angle to ensure proper management. There are caveats on where you can collect them and how. You can’t collect them from trees of a certain height for instance and you need to tell us where you are getting them from so that we can monitor use and learn about the impacts,” Edwards said.
Since SRD has now received NEPA clearance for up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips to start, interested individuals can apply for commercial spruce tip picking permits in the district without having to go through the entire public review process from the beginning.
“I’d just love to get the NEPA done for more of these forest resources. Down south there are a lot of entire forests that have a special forest product plan in place for the whole forest,” Edwards said. “For example, on the forests that have big fires, whole tent-towns spring up to harvest morel mushrooms and they make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing that,” Edwards said.
“We might not have the mushroom thing in that quantity but jeez, I look outside and I see spruce tips and I see blueberries and I don’t know how we could ever pick out the blueberry crop,” Edwards said.
The permit process looks different depending on the request, the size of the harvest, the type of resource, the location etc. For example, LaPerriere’s permits for salvaging dead trees was processed as a timber permit and did not require a public review process in part due to the quantity and nature of his request (only a handful of dead trees a year). The recent spruce tip forest product permit for 150 pounds in Sitka did not need to go through public review because the SRD had already NEPA cleared 10,000 pounds.
There is opportunity to be creative. Groups of harvesters could combine efforts and apply for a permit to pick berries to sell wholesale, for example. Edwards explained that tribal governments or organizations could even apply for permits to pick, say 10,000 pounds of blueberries and administer smaller permits among tribal and non-tribal citizens. The most efficient and appropriate required permit and process will differ based on the resource you seek and your plan but the USFS is more than just receptive to the idea, they are encouraging, excited to work with more Alaskans to develop business plans based on public lands.
“I would love to see more of these and see more people come in. Like with Zach’s stuff, I never would have thought of that business in a million years. I keep going to my typical berries and chanterelle mushroom examples but spruce tips too,” Edwards said. “I never would have thought of that.”
If you are interested, develop a business plan and start crunching some numbers.
“Come to us early on and say ‘Hey I have this idea, how can we make this happen.’ Don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, I need this and this needs to happen tomorrow or this month,” Edwards said. “Depending on the proposal it could take 5-6 months maybe less, maybe more.”
The cost for the permit is determined by the resource, the amount, whether you intend to sell wholesale or retail. It’s all determined case by case. If you have an idea, Edwards recommends you call your local Forest Service office and start the conversation and begin to research.
“We would be happy to work with you. We are absolutely open to it. I love the idea of people coming to me with new ideas, I’m waiting. I’m here with the government and I’m waiting to help,” Edwards said.
A country founded on small business
Back at the lathe, LaPerriere is busy churning out between 150-200 wooden bowls a year and he’s seeing growth and encouraging others to explore their own ideas.
“If anyone is interested in this, fire it up, try it out. If you like making jam, try making a bigger batch, talk to the Forest Service about harvesting off public lands. Start small and scale up,” LaPerriere advised.
“The Forest Service has gone from adversarial to small businesses to wide open arms. I could not ask for a more encouraging agency to help make the process as simple as possible. They see the value in small industry because our country was founded on small business! Some things come and some things go but small business will always be here,” LaPerriere said.
• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance storyteller and the Communications Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). SSP is a diverse group of partners dedicated to the cultural, ecological and economic prosperity of Alaska’s rural communities. Visit www.SustainableSoutheast.net or www.bethany-goodrich.com for more.