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Assembly not ready to drop support of Tongass Roundtable

Tongass Roundtable motion fails in a 4-4 tie

Posted: September 20, 2011 - 12:04am

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly did not get enough votes to support a move to withdraw broad support of the Tongass Futures Roundtable.

Deputy Mayor Merrill Sanford brought the matter up, wanting to “clean up” the issue before he leaves office this fall as he terms out.

Mayor Bruce Botelho recused himself from the discussion and action, citing a conflict of interest. He is the roundtable’s mediator, independent of the Assembly.

The measure failed in a tie, with Assembly members Mary Becker, Merrill Sanford, Malcolm Menzies and David Stone in favor of the resolution moving to support the roundtable on a case-by case basis. Members Karen Crane, Ruth Danner, Johan Dybdahl and Peter Freer were in favor of retaining existing support.

Sanford believes the “whereases” in the initial resolution of support are not being fulfilled by the roundtable — specifically the timber harvesting initiatives.

He said the industry is declining naturally and there are only barriers in place to enliven it. Sanford also said that there were 600,000 acres of timber available to harvest for saw mills, but now because of constant “give-ups” there are only about 260,000 acres of second-growth timber acres available. Sanford said there should be enough acreage available to support three or four saw mills in an environmentally sustainable way.

Sanford said the only progress the roundtable has made in the way of timber goals is with second growth — in which it will be at least 30 years, but probably closer to 40, before anything can be harvested.

“This group is not working on that and they listed it as one of their primary goals,” Sanford said.

Sanford said by approving the resolution, the Assembly wouldn’t be necessarily withdrawing support of the work that the roundtable is accomplishing. It instead would require the group to come to the Assembly with specific initiatives when it wanted the city’s support.

“The roundtable cannot do what our old resolution says and will not do what it says,” Sanford said. “It will not support a viable timber source. The Futures Roundtable is not going to support that in any other way except the second growth issue, which is maybe 30 years out, probably 40. What it all boils down to, the Tongass Futures Roundtable cannot do all of the things in our resolution that they say they want to do.”

Norman Cohen, Southeast Alaska Program Director for the Nature Conservancy of Alaska in Juneau, serves through his job as a staff member for the roundtable. He spoke in opposition to the Assembly repealing the resolution listing its initial support for the roundtable.

He said the resolution passed in 2007 did not call for any specific action, merely areas the city would support.

Cohen said it’s an opportunity for all the stakeholders in Southeast Alaska to come together and discuss the issues, promoting one another’s economic and cultural values within the industry.

“That dialogue has proven to be very positive over the past several years,” Cohen said. “It has provided a forum for stakeholders that otherwise would not be discussed in the region. It has worked out controversial issues that have allowed for a timber supply to continue to the industry. The roundtable is more than just about timber. It has given a voice to many rural residents, tribes and communities, leading to new ventures and businesses in Southeast Alaska.”

Assemblyman Johan Dybdahl asked what the impact of withdrawing the initial resolution of support would be and replacing it with a case-by-case resolution.

Cohen said what Juneau does sends a strong message to other communities and stakeholders in Southeast, not only as a neighbor but also as the capital city.

Cohen said it also sends a message to those communities that Juneau isn’t interested in a dialogue with the representatives or discussing the issues.

Rick Harris, executive vice president for Sealaska Corp., also spoke out against the resolution revoking broader support.

“During our participation in the roundtable, we have made a substantial commitment to the overarching goals,” Harris said. “The goal to improve communication, to that effect we have been successful.”

Harris said the remaining members of the roundtable had recently taken a vote on whether to continue. He said it was overwhelmingly decided to do so.

Harris said the goals of the roundtable also included initiatives outside of timber. He said the work of the roundtable has helped them create a new LLC to develop new businesses. One business has created two new oyster farming operations — one in Kake and one in Yakutat — with another to come in Angoon.

“We can understand people’s frustration that we have not found a solution to timber,” Harris said. “That’s a 30-40 year fight. We have made substantial progress. (We) have achieved bridge timber. I think it’s fair to say to the Assembly we are disappointed in that performance.”

Assemblyman Peter Freer said he can understand Sanford’s frustration with a lack of significant progress in timber production and a decline of the industry, however he also didn’t see how withdrawing broad support of the roundtable would help.

“Everything has to be talked out,” Freer said. “That’s where I see the value of the roundtable. It’s a diverse group of stakeholder interests. If something could be worked out that’s the right forum to do it. I’d hate to just walk away from the table on this. ... I see value for an effort like this. I have not attended the meetings. I do not know how difficult the conversations have been. I presume they’ve been fairly difficult.”

Dybdahl, who worked for Sealaska for 14 years, said when he happened upon a roundtable meeting by chance, he was astounded to see timber industry representatives in the same room as conservation groups. Dybdahl said at the time, it was unthinkable.

“I don’t think the timber industry in Southeast Alaska is ever going to go back to the way it was,” Dybdahl said. “It will be going forward to something different. There are now many other stakeholders in the Tongass. I don’t see anything wrong with the prior resolution. If we can’t talk then we’re not going to learn anything about the other’s position.”

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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