JUNEAU — The chief of the U.S. Forest Service said Friday that visiting southeast Alaska communities in the country’s largest national forest has given him a better understanding of some of the challenges faced in those areas.
Thomas Tidwell was touring the Tongass National Forest with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Thursday and Friday. Their itinerary included stops at a lumber yard and tree-thinning site, a meeting that included tourism, mining and timber interests, and a flyover of the proposed Niblack Mine.
Murkowski told a news conference in Ketchikan on Friday that she hopes Tidwell leaves with a recognition that in his role, it’s not just about management of the trees, it’s also about management of the economy of a region.
Murkowski has introduced legislation that would allow for roads to be built in roadless areas of the Tongass for easier access to the proposed Niblack and Bokan Mountain mines.
Last month Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the national forest system, told a House subcommittee hearing a similar bill from Rep. Don Young that there were more economically efficient ways to bring workers to the proposed Niblack and Bokan Mountain mine sites.
Her written testimony suggested workers at Niblack could take a boat, like workers at Juneau’s Kensington Mine do. Young said Weldon didn’t have to “paddle across the Potomac in a canoe” to get to the hearing in Washington, and workers should be able to travel to the mining area by road.
Tidwell told reporters Friday the government must provide reasonable access when there’s valid right, like a mining right. He said there are exemptions within the so-called “roadless rule” but did not say how or whether those might be used to allow for construction of roads in this case. He said he believes flexibilities also exist for hydro projects.
He said he wants to look at situations and see “what we can move forward with under this rule.” The agency has to look at the impacts of roads — whether they’re proposed for roadless areas or not — and not every road that’s proposed is approved, he said.
Murkowski agreed with Tidwell’s point that he needs a chance to see this all for himself.
Southeast Alaska no longer has the vibrant timber industry it once had, and some communities continue to grapple with high energy costs.
Tidwell recognized the Chilkoot Indian Association and Ketchikan Gateway Borough, two recently announced recipients of federal grants for design work for converting their heating systems to use biomass fuel. He said that work is significant because growing demand for biomass fuels will justify the need for building the necessary, associated infrastructure in southeast Alaska. Greater use of biomass could create jobs and lower energy costs, he said.
Tidwell is the first federal official that Murkowski is scheduled to host during the current congressional recess. Alaska’s senior senator plans to visit other parts of the state this month with Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.