Next week, the Juneau Economic Development Council will host the third Innovation Summit in Juneau. The U.S. Forest Service co-sponsors this gathering of business leaders, government officials, and local stakeholders every year. The important work accomplished when these groups come together directly supports the agency’s priority for economic growth and community health in Southeast Alaska. Recognizing the significance and the potential of this event, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Patrice Kunesh is traveling to Alaska from the nation’s capital to take an active role in the proceedings of the Summit. We greatly look forward to the Deputy Under Secretary’s insight and guidance at this venue, and offer her a warm welcome to Alaska.
As an agency of USDA, the Forest Service and our partners in Rural Development, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Farm Service Agency, along with the Economic Development Administration from the U.S. Department of Commerce, initiated the Transition Framework for Economic Diversification in 2010. Our goal is to focus on creating jobs and improving the health of local communities through renewable energy, forest restoration, timber, tourism, subsistence, fisheries, and mariculture. To help achieve this goal we have supported the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) as it leads an economic cluster initiative with government, business, and community leaders. The approach provides a framework for collaborative innovation in five areas: ocean products, visitor products, renewable energy, mining services and supply, and research and development. Forest Service support for the work and mission of these clusters rejoins the agency’s larger mission of creating jobs and diversifying local economies in Southeast Alaska.
Also in 2010, USDA launched the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity to leverage partnerships in poverty-stricken rural areas to ensure every community has equal access to USDA programs. Southeast Alaska was designated a StrikeForce Zone in early 2013, to make USDA services and programs available to all individuals throughout the region, a welcome and complementary effort to both the Transition Framework and cluster initiative. As areas of persistent poverty are identified, USDA staff work with state, local, and community officials to increase awareness of USDA programs and build program participation through intensive community outreach. Since 2010, through StrikeForce, USDA has partnered with more than 400 community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities, and other groups to support 80,300 projects and ushered more than $9.7 billion in investments into rural America, including many communities in Alaska.
Increasing the use of biomass for heat is a prime example of a cross-cutting agency and community priority that can reduce high energy costs, catalyze the Forest Service’s transition to young growth, and leverage resources in a time of difficult budgets. In a region that consumes roughly 22 million gallons of heating oil annually, Forest Service-supported biomass projects in Ketchikan, Haines, and Kake have already begun to offset the $70 million in heating costs escaping these Southeast communities and others every year. With continued diligence in its biomass efforts, the Forest Service will realize its goal of reducing local fossil fuel use by 30 percent by the year 2023.
The Forest Service and our sister USDA agencies will remain rigorously engaged in the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity work that goes into protecting Alaskans’ world-class, diverse landscapes while growing our local economies here in Southeast. Continued support and collaboration among JEDC, USDA agencies, and local businesses will result in innovative ways of meeting USDA priorities and the economic needs of the American public.
Next week I look forward to meeting many of our business leaders and learning how government leaders can further support businesses’ entrepreneurial spirit and
• Beth Pendleton is the regional forester with the U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region. Jim Nordlund is Alaska state director of USDA Rural Development.