As the executive director of Southeast Conference, the regional economic development organization for Southeast Alaska, I read with interest a recent "My Turn" that criticized our interest in revitalizing the timber economy of the region. A better understanding of our organization will provide a fuller picture of why we need to take on the responsibilities we do.
The mission of Southeast Conference is to undertake and support activities that promote strong economies, healthy communities and a quality environment in Southeast Alaska. Southeast Conference began 46 years ago with a group of interested people who wished to see a regional transportation system in Southeast Alaska. The end result was the creation of the Alaska Marine Highway. After that success Southeast Conference stayed together through a near half-century to focus on other concerns unique to the region. Transportation, specifically the long-term viability of our ferry system, continues to be our number-one priority. Our current number-two priority is to get our rural communities onto a hydro-powered electric grid and off dependence on burning diesel fuel for energy. We have a very strong focus on the fishing and tourism industries, and are currently exploring ways to get wild Alaska salmon on cruise ships. Our environment committee is hard at work dealing with regional solid waste issues and we are on the 13th year of our Household Hazardous Waste Disposal Program keeping hazardous substances out of landfills. Our economic development committee is working on an economic inventory concept to help communities market their unique attributes to businesses. This year we have expanded our focus to include regional health concerns, as the number one private employer in our region is a health care provider. We keep our eye on mining, on the Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan and, yes, we also focus on timber.
The "My Turn," authored by a SEACC board member, proclaimed Southeast Conference's timber focus is "evidence of the economic myths that are keeping us from adequately supporting the wide variety of jobs around the region." There is not a single topic of economic importance to the region that Southeast Conference does not focus upon and it would be irresponsible for us to ignore timber.
The truth is, the economy of Southeast Alaska has been in decline for the past decade. Real per capita income fell 4 percent overall in Southeast and 8 percent outside of Juneau - while at the same time it increased 13 percent in Alaska and 25 percent in the U.S., according to the Juneau Economic Development Council. The primary reason for this is the decline in the timber industry. This industry once provided 4,500 jobs to the region and currently provides approximately 650 direct jobs. These lost jobs represent over $1 billion in lost payroll in Southeast Alaska in the last 10 years (McDowell Group).
While we do not expect to resurrect a timber industry that will rival the past heights of the 1970s, we also refuse to stand by and watch the last remnants of our timber industry be stamped out. The Tongass can and should support a sustainable workforce and a sustainable industry on a larger scale than exists currently. We do not and cannot agree with groups that oppose every single timber sale, lost appeal after lost appeal, with the express purpose of draining human and financial resources from the struggling timber industry.
Our responsibility is to Southeast Alaskans, to our membership and to support the economic fabric of our Panhandle. Moreover, since our membership has doubled in the past three years to 130 and now includes nearly every community in Southeast Alaska, our responsibility to our region has increased. We are blessed with the volunteer efforts of over 100 Southeast Alaskans and the ability to expand our staff to assist in increasing our focus on growing the Southeast Alaska economy in a variety of ways. These are tough economic times and uncertainty concerning continuing local revenue limits the ability of small communities to move forward with local projects. Southeast Alaska needs healthy industries of many varieties to support our economy. Each component of our diverse economy needs to be supported if we are going to continue to enjoy the high quality of life and access to family wage jobs we depend on.
Meilani Schijvens is the executive director of the Southeast Conference and a lifelong resident of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about Southeast Conference visit www.seconference.org.