Southeast Alaska may never see the timber industry return to the glory days it enjoyed decades ago, but one of Alaska’s senators is trying to spur some growth in that industry and another.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, took a two-day fly-over of the Tongass National Forest last month with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to potentially pave the way for Alaska to once again be exempt of the roadless rule.
“One of my prime goals was to let him see for himself what you’re talking about when you see the application of the roadless rule and the limitations we face,” Murkowski said during an interview at the Juneau Empire’s office Wednesday.
Specifically, those challenges are realized when attempting to plan for building and powering a renewable energy industry in the region.
“It’s one thing to look at it on a map — it’s another thing to appreciate it up a couple thousand feet from the topography,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski co-sponsored legislation in February that would exempt Alaska from the roadless rule, which is designed to protect roadless national forest lands.
The University of Alaska-Southeast recently put on the Al-Can forum during which experts from both the United States and neighboring British Columbia encouraged renewable energy development in the region, particularly due to an abundant supply.
They added, however, that doing so under the current interpretation and enforcement of the roadless rule was nearly impossible.
That’s something Murkowski is trying to change, and while the legislative effort — a Senate bill that would exempt Alaska from the roadless rule — is likely still years away from even being heard in committee, there are other avenues to pursue.
“It’s a heck of a lot easier to get relief through administrative channels than legislative channels, because it can take years [to get bills passed],” Murkowski said.
And there may be progress in that realm, she added.
“I have taken the chief up on his word that he believes there is flexibility built into the roadless rule specifically to allow for renewable energy opportunities,” Murkowski said, “and I’m going to keep pushing him for greater specifics, because at this point in time, he hasn’t given me the specifics I’m looking for.”
Still, any effort to spur development in the region is likely to be met with staunch opposition from environmental groups.
“The Tongass is particularly an area where you have many in the national environmental community that say Tongass should be sacred,” Murkowski said. “The Tongass is the ANWR of Southeast — it is that area that is too precious, too perfect, man should not be touching it.
“Well, we forget that men, women and kids live here. We live in the Tongass and that’s what I think is not fully appreciated back in Washington D.C.”
Murkowski was born in Ketchikan, so she remembers the days when the timber industry thrived in the region, but she also said that those days are a thing of the past.
“We’re not saying we want a revival of an industry to the place we were decades before. What were asking for is lets just allow smaller operators ... to have a reliable, sustainable supply so they can continue to not only feed their families but also supply some jobs for the region.”
The 11-year Senate veteran is particularly concerned with the sometimes-impractical application of the shift from using old growth for the timber industry to second growth — newer trees.
“I can’t snap my fingers and make a tree grow faster,” Murkowski said.
If changes are not implemented that allow logging operations to continue functioning until second-growth trees in their operational areas are ready to be harvested, then the industry will move on.
And that’s not ok with the senator.
“This was a big part of Southeast, and I’m not willing to stand by and watch it die while we put in policies that I think choke the life out of it,” Murkowski said. “Which I think roadless does.”