I make my living as a general contractor in Sitka and employ an average of 8 to 10 people throughout the year. As someone who builds homes from old-growth, spruce, hemlock and cedar harvested sustainably from the Tongass National Forest, I know a thing or two about this temperate rainforest I call home. I firmly believe that a small-scale, high-end forest products industry can and should continue in the Tongass and that if we strike the correct balance between logging and other uses, we can have a bright economic future here in Southeast Alaska. That’s why when I learned of the statements made recently by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, and Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch I was dismayed.
The senator and Maisch, speaking before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, painted a dismal and inaccurate portrait of Southeast Alaska, basically implying that unless large-scale logging returns to the Tongass, there is little economic hope for the region — that schools are shutting down and people are packing up and moving away. They tried to persuade the committee to direct the Forest Service to hand over two-million acres of the Tongass to the State of Alaska for use as a “timber trust,” meaning a big parcel they can mow down with chainsaws, all in the name of boosting jobs and population.
Talk about trying to rewrite history. The fact is Southeast Alaska has moved on since the glory days of the pulp mills that closed nearly two decades ago. Our population has been rising since 2007 and, according to Alaska Department of Labor statistics, we even have baby booms going on in Skagway, Prince of Wales, Haines and Wrangell. The number of little kids in Southeast — newborns to four year olds — has increased by nearly 15 percent between 2007 and 2011. So no, we’re not shriveling up and disappearing here in the Panhandle. We’re growing.
Economically we seem to be doing quite well too. We have thriving commercial and sport fishing industries not to mention a robust and expanding tourism sector. Wild salmon, in particular, sustains this region. More than 7,000 jobs are directly tied to our salmon fisheries. Tourism employs more than 10,000 people. Both are billion-dollar businesses that depend on a healthy forest, not industrial-scale logging.
The fact is, we don’t need to ramp up logging in the Tongass National Forest. Neither the fishing nor tourism industries – the two mainstays of our economy here, besides government — want more clear cuts. We had 50 years of industrial-scale timber cutting. That’s enough. It’s time to move on.
In my opinion, the cream of the crop as far as Tongass old-growth timber has already been cut. It was liquidated during the pulp mill era. If the state manages to get its hands on the two-million acres of timber that Murkowski and Maisch are proposing, these high-value trees would be cut, exported overseas and provide minimal benefit for the region.
What remains of Tongass old growth is very important to our fish and wildlife. It should be left as is, or at the very least, it should remain in federal hands. It’s not that I’m the big fan of Uncle Sam. But at least under federal regulations, loggers must leave much larger buffers along salmon streams than under state guidelines. This is reason alone not to hand over two-million acres of the Tongass to the state.
The Forest Service has done a much better job over the years in managing its lands than the State of Alaska
What really gets to me about Murkowski and Maisch’s remarks this week is that the senator and the Parnell Administration want to take important publicly held resources out of the hands of Americans and essentially turn them over to corporate interests who will log them for profit. Why give away a national treasure like the Tongass National Forest? It makes little sense to me.
• Marcell LaLerriere lives in Sitka and is a general contractor.