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My turn: If they develop the Tongass, will visitors still go there?

Posted: June 27, 2011 - 7:51pm  |  Updated: June 29, 2011 - 6:05am

According to a recent study by the U.S. Forest Service titled, “Characterization of Resident and Non-resident Visitors to Alaska National Forests,” the most popular primary recreation activities for non-residents include hiking, viewing nature, and fishing. As a tour operator myself, I would agree with this research, and would add that the beauty and wilderness of the Tongass National Forest is what makes Southeast Alaska one of the best places on earth to work.

I have grave concerns about the future of our precious lands and waters, as well as the impact on the ecotourism industry itself, with the reintroduction of the Sealaska bill. If the bill passes, there will be a very serious negative impact on what visitors love most about Southeast Alaska, which in turn, means that it will have a very serious negative impact on the ecotourism industry. Sealaska has chosen places for clear cutting where tour operators take their clients to experience “The Last Frontier” — the same lands that Sealaska has selected as “enterprise zones.” These wilderness areas are experienced by a vast and diverse clientele and also provide a home and are the summer feeding grounds for humpback whales and sea lions, as well as bald eagles and brown bears.

A recent study conservatively estimated that nature-based tourism contributed $277 million in direct business revenue for just a small sample of Southeast Alaska communities (Sitka, Prince of Wales, Hoonah, Juneau, Petersburg, and Wrangell). And, what’s more — ecotourism is top three in terms of driving our local economies. Our clients stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and buy local and all of us buy our provisions locally. What happens to the ever-growing local ecotourism industry if the timber industry continues its domination? Today, the region’s timber revenue is in decline and the industry accounts for less than 1 percent of local jobs — in fact, revenue from recreation, tourism and commercial fishing far exceed that from timber. It is time to reprioritize what we value and what is valued to ensure the growth of the ecotourism industry. We need to start to value wilderness and quiet, back country places and finally acknowledge that we need to move beyond the industry of the past: timber.

We must make this transition — as we speak, wilderness is slipping away from us: to timber companies, to cruise ships visiting in the Tongass and to Sealaska, who is looking to select the so-called “enterprise zones” smack in the middle of one of the last real wilderness areas. Without a specific definition of what an “enterprise zone” means, there is no answer to what type or scale of development might happen here. While I understand the importance of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the needs of the Native people of Southeast Alaska, please keep in mind that a thriving industry in Southeast Alaska relies on this area, as well, to provide a truly unique wilderness experience.

Unfortunately, on an almost daily basis, we seem to be losing the ability to do just that. People come to Alaska to experience “The Last Frontier,” which will be a thing of the past if we don’t make every effort to protect what little wilderness truly remains. If Sealaska develops our wilderness areas, will our customers still come? We all have a responsibility to protect the Tongass — without it, Southeast Alaska becomes just another Disneyland — a facade of wilderness with little substance.

• Swanson is the owner and operator of All Aboard Yacht Charters and president of Southeast Alaska Wilderness Tours Association.

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