On May 5, Gov. Sean Parnell announced a new state timber task force to focus on creation of new timber industry jobs on federal, state and private lands. The governor also announced that the state will withdraw from the Tongass Futures Roundtable (TFR), a privately sponsored, non-governmental forum. The TFR fosters dialogue on achieving a long-term balance of healthy and diverse communities, vibrant economies, responsible use of resources (including timber) while maintaining the natural values and ecological integrity of the forest.
Of the 31 member organizations identified on the roundtable website, six are conservation organizations. The governor’s timber task force announcement mentions no conservation members, yet conservationists may have a greater voice in task force deliberations then they have had on the roundtable. How can this be? The governor’s timber task force will be subject to the state’s public meetings law. Everyone, regardless of interest, will be entitled to the opportunities that law provides. Any member of the public will also be able to access public documents under the state’s freedom of information act.
By comparison, because the TFR is a privately convened forum funded by the Moore, Hewlett, Wilburforce, Rasmuson and Campion foundations, and The Nature Conservancy, it is not subject to the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act the way the state is. The TFR’s website fosters an open, inclusive and transparent process to reach all Tongass voices. However, this laudable goal is hampered by the fact that original roundtable members were appointed by the roundtable organizers. More recent members are selected by already existing members. This self-appointment flies in the face of an open and democratic public process. An increasingly vocal number of conservationists are expressing a belief that their interests are not represented well enough by the organizations on the roundtable.
State government is accountable to the public. The roundtable and its funders are not. Time will tell how well recommendations by the state’s new timber task force balance protection of Alaska’s uniquely important wildlife habitat values with the Governor’s stated intent to promote new timber industry jobs. Maybe, just maybe, conservationists will fare better under the task force than many of them have with the Tongass Futures Roundtable.
• Baker is a 40-year Juneau resident and forester by training. He served as a U.S. Forest Service employee, natural resource specialist for Gov. Jay Hammond and former Deputy Director of ADF&G’s Habitat Division. He has volunteered with non-profit conservation groups.