My Turn: Governor: Don't forget about tourism and fisheries

After reading Gov. Sean Parnell’s My Turn column today, I guess it’s safe to say I’ve lived the “American Story.” After working for someone else in tourism for seven years, I started a guiding business here in Juneau doing just about any type of fishing a client would pay for based out of a 20 foot skiff. It didn’t take long for me to see there was plenty of demand for guided fly fishing and the huge numbers of Tongass streams, filled with salmon and trout, were perfect for meeting that demand.

Within a matter of a couple years the business expanded to offer a fly-out component with a local flight service and had seven guides, a driver and a book-keeper supporting the effort. The saltwater side of the business grew in similar fashion, adding three custom-made boats built in Sitka and captains to run them. Given the success of my family businesses and that of many other fishing guide and lodge businesses in Southeast, I’m sure you’ll understand why I was shocked the governor’s recent opinion piece mentioned Tongass fish resources only in passing and failed to mention tourism at all.

Together, Southeast Alaska commercial, sport and subsistence fishing account for at least 7,000 jobs in the region and create over a billion dollars of revenue. Southeast tourism and recreation adds roughly 10,000 more jobs and another billion dollars to our economy. Why isn’t the governor touting these numbers? It would seem that our chief executive would know what really drives jobs and income in a part of their own state. Instead, Parnell seems bent on trying to breathe life back into an ailing timber industry that costs American taxpayers over $20 million in subsidies annually. I don’t have anything against the timber industry but it needs to pay its own way, operate sustainably and not require $20 million hand-outs from the government.

Like the governor, I also support mining and hydro projects here in Southeast that can operate without harming fish. But Parnell should not forget there’s a host of places around the world that once had abundant salmon and trout populations and don’t have fish anymore. In almost every instance, the gradual loss of fish habitat caused by logging, mining, hydro and urbanization has been the culprit. I want to see a different story here in Southeast. We can certainly develop our mineral, hydro and timber resources but let’s make sure the needs of the real backbone of our economy — fish and the people who depend on them — are protected first.

In his column, the governor mistakenly says that the 5 million acres of designated wilderness on the Tongass produce no jobs. What is he possibly thinking? These lands comprise 30 percent of known fish habitat on the Tongass and contribute substantial numbers of fish to commercial, sport and subsistence catches. These lands also draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region every summer.

It’s precisely because Congress set aside places that are critically important to fish and wildlife, as well as to visitors, that we have booming fishing and tourism industries in the region.

Fisheries and tourism don’t seem to be on the governor’s radar but they are infinitely renewable, going-concerns that represent an opportunity for Southeast to avoid the boom and bust realities of other industries. Rather than seeking to take lands out of the National Forest system and fighting conservation designations, working to lock in more of the fisheries and tourism values of these places would represent an investment in the future of our region.

I know that’s a different story than the one the governor is telling but the world has heard his story before and it’s never ended well for fish — not anywhere.

Mark Kaelke is a 24-year resident of Juneau. A former fishing guide and tourism entrepreneur, he works for Trout Unlimited, the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization with some 150,000 members. Trout Unlimited has four active chapters in Alaska, located in Southeast, Anchorage and the Mat-Su, the Kenai Peninsula and, Fairbanks.

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