The vast Tongass National Forest that covers much of Southeast Alaska and Northwest British Columbia doesn’t change at the national border, but forces governing the management and use of those trees change dramatically, according to experts at the Al-Can Forum held this week.
The University of Alaska Southeast teamed up with the Juneau World Affairs Council to put on the forum, which took place from Thursday to Saturday at the Auke Bay campus. Topics covered a range of issues including renewable energy, climate change, natural resources, transportation and the region’s history.
For Stewart Elgie, a professor of environmental and natural resources law and policy at the University of Ottawa, the differences in land management can be summed up by looking at who owns the land, and, therefore, who makes the call on how it’s handled.
“People in New York city, Chicago and Boston have as much say in how the Tongass is managed as people here in Southeast Alaska,” Elgie said. “They view it as their last forest to get it right.”
British Columbia and Southeast Alaska have a similar amount of public land — about 95 percent in Canada, and 88 percent here — but the difference is that 94 percent of that land in Canada is owned by the province, compared to only 27 percent in Southeast Alaska.
“They don’t make the same decisions Alaskans would make,” Elgie said of U.S. federal government. “They don’t put as much focus on the economic side, probably.”
That policy, overtime, has led to about 90 percent of the Tongass being protected land in the U.S., while only 60 percent of the forest in British Columbia is protected, Elgie said.
Canadian laws allow for more discretion from its leaders, whereas American law typically uses “shall” in its legislation, Elgie continued.
The result is differences in how industry versus environmentalism battles play out. Often times in the U.S., courts make the final decision based on binding laws, Elgie said, whereas in Canada both sides tend to compromise outside of court.
“The United States has made the primary goal of Southeast Alaska conservation and tourism,” he said. “In British Columbia it’s more of an even balance (with industry).”
The heavier regulations on the American end of the forest also led some experts at the forum to declare renewable energy can’t become available to Southeast Alaska.
“With the Roadless Rule in place as it is currently, I don’t see any way for renewable energy to become available in the Southeast,” said Bob Grimm, CEO of Alaska Power and Telephone.
During the renewable energy session Friday, experts outlined several new developments underway in the Tongass on the Canadian side, but policy on this side of the border makes development difficult, Grimm said.
Because the Tongass covers so much of Southeast Alaska, building transportation lines to get power to and from energy collection sites is not always feasible, Grimm added.
“There’s a total disconnect that needs to be resolved,” he said.
Solutions, short of governmental policy change, include developing mechanisms to transport energy in a way that doesn’t violate the Roadless Rule, and enticing industry to move near the power sources so they are not wasted, Grimm said.
Another portion from Friday’s renewable energy session centered on Alaska’s vast potential.
Thanks to the state’s large coastline, about 90 percent of the nation’s tidal power potential is found in Alaska — even though the technology to make tidal energy work is not quite developed.
Alaska also has enormous potential for wind, geothermal, hydrokinetic and biomass energy development, Grimm said.
By convincing industry to move into Southeast Alaska, the region would be getting access to things it may not otherwise be able to pay for, he added.
“We could afford what Southeast can’t now by having industry develop the infrastructure,” Grimm said.