Improving Southeast’s energy supplies could go a long way to saving its struggling small communities, but rebuilding local fishing fleets could help as well, said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, whose Senate district includes Ketchikan, Petersburg and neighboring areas.
Building hydroelectric power plants may be expensive, but it has always worked out in the past, he said.
“We build hydros, we pay a lot of money for them, we squeal a lot in the first 10 years, and after that we pat ourselves about how smart we were and how we’re saving a fortune,” Stedman said.
The influential co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee spoke Thursday before the Native Issues Forum, sponsored by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Many in the forum audience had ties to Hoonah, Angoon, Kake and other communities, shelling out for high-priced diesel-generated power while Southeast’s biggest cities of Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Ketchikan have government-built hydroelectric power.
“We need to get our villages — well, that’s what the guys up north call them, we call them communities in Southeast — get them off diesel generation and get them on hydro,” he said.
Stedman said state help for more power projects is likely, especially Angoon’s Thayer Lake, Hoonah’s Gartina Falls, and an intertie between Kake and Petersburg.
But that’s not all that needs to be done, he said.
Fishing fleets that once sustained those ports need to be rebuilt as well, and that’s not going to be easy, he said.
Having shoreside freezer plants are necessary for fishing boats to help support their communities, but to have plants you have to have hydro, he said.
“You need competitively priced energy, and you don’t get that running diesel,” he said.
Stedman said he recently visited Kake and saw pictures from decades ago of dozens of seine boats rafted up in port awaiting openings, and wants to bring that back.
“One of the things I think we should really be looking at is bringing those permits back to the small communities,” he said.
Some type of community quota system or a way to hold permits for local uses might be an answer.
“If Kake had half a dozen seine boats that would be a huge impact on the community,” he said.
But because permits once held by residents of Kake, Angoon and Metlakatla were sold years ago, a fishing industry will be difficult to rebuild, he said.
“You’ve got to have a skipper and you’ve got to have a crew and the skipper has to know what he’s doing and the crew needs to know how to function on deck,” he said.
That knowledge base may no longer be there, given how long ago some permits were sold.
“Normally you learn that from your parents, or your uncles,” he said.
“A lot of skippers sold their permits 20 years ago and that knowledge hasn’t transferred,” he said.
To make it all work, however, will take electricity to run freezer plants and plug in seine boats chillers in the harbor. Stedman said it would be a challenge to get the additional money needed to develop they hydro from a Legislature with only a few Southeast members.
“The folks up north want to give us just enough power to turn on our light bulbs and not enough to run our freezer plants,” he said.
The Legislature is also supporting wise use of energy, including strong support for weatherization programs. That both lowered bills and created jobs in insulating homes and replacing windows and is likely to be extended, he said.
“It’s one of the most successful programs the state has ever done, in my opinion,” he said.
Jodi Mitchell, CEO of the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative, which provides power to a number of the communities Stedman mentioned, thanked him for his support for their needs.
“I really appreciate your help, and your recognition of the dire need in our small communities,” she said.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at email@example.com.