My Turn: Southeast timber industry has responded to change

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2004

I would like to address a recent article published in the Juneau Empire by Mike Sallee of Ketchikan. Mr. Sallee begins by stating that he has "become increasingly concerned about a gap between Southeast Conference's goals for our economy and the true needs of our region." He then goes on to point out the changing economic and environmental forces that have impacted the timber industry of Southeast Alaska in recent years. In this he is correct, there is no question that market demands within the timber industry have changed and environmental awareness has grown in recent years. The question is how is the timber industry responding to these changes? Based on what Mr. Sallee says one would think there has been no attempt by the timber industry to address any of these changes.

In his letter Mr. Sallee says, "Southeast Alaska's economy can be revitalized, but not the way the Southeast Conference wants to do it. As far as timber goes, we can't compete on a large scale and there is no point in deceiving ourselves that we can. However, we can sustain and develop small, family owned, high value-added timber manufacturing businesses instead of letting big corporations export unprocessed logs overseas at little profit to Alaskans."

I don't think anyone would disagree with this statement. But apparently Mr. Sallee has not taken a look around lately or, if he has, he chooses to ignore the changes that have occurred in recent years. Today the only mills operating in Southeast Alaska are locally based, family owned operations. These mills can easily operate within the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP).

Kirk Dahlstrom and family of Klawock own Viking Lumber. Viking Lumber is presently operating on about 20 million board feet of timber per year. They employ approximately 40 people year-round. Their operations consist of dimensionally sawn lumber and chips made from lower-grade wood. The chips are barged south for paper and other industries. Given a reliable supply of timber, employment could be increased to approximately 80 people. This would require a reliable supply of about 40 mmbf of timber per year. All red cedar harvested is sawn at the mill. Yellow cedar is exported overseas because of low domestic demand.

Steve Seley and family of Ketchikan own Pacific Lumber and Logging. Pacific Lumber and Log is presently operating on about 8 mmbf of timber per year. They employ 21 people. Their operations consist of dimensionally sawn lumber along with molding and casing stock. All red cedar is sawn at the mill along with some of the yellow cedar. Again, most yellow cedar is exported overseas, as there is little domestic demand. Given a reliable supply of timber, employment could be increased to approximately 40 people. This would require a supply of about 18 mmbf of timber per year. A new kiln will be online at the Pacific Lumber and Log mill in just a few weeks. Locally produced, kiln dried lumber products will soon be available in Ketchikan and the rest of Southeast at local hardware outlets.

The Buhler Family of Wrangell own Silver Bay Logging. Silver Bay Logging is presently shut down for the winter. When operating, they employ 35 to 40 people and use approximately 35 mmbf of timber per year. Their operations consist of dimensionally sawn lumber. Chips are barged to Canada or the Pacific Northwest. Most red cedar is sawn before shipping. Much of the yellow cedar is sawn before exporting overseas. Give a reliable supply of timber employment could increase to as many as 60 employees. This would require about 50 mmbf of timber.

Mr. Sallee states that "recent average market demand" is approximately 36 million board feet a year." With just a few phone calls I was able to learn that present timber needs from the three main mills in Southeast is about 62 mmbf. These mills are not operating at normal or fully efficient operating capacity. Mr. Dahlstom, Mr. Seley and Mr. Champion, of Silver Bay Logging, have all stated they are operating at less than capacity. With a reliable supply of timber they would be able to employ more people and operate more efficiently.

The present TLMP allows for up to 267 mmbf of timber cut. Clearly, present utilization falls well under this level. Besides the three mills presented, there are a number of smaller mills which utilize from a few thousand to million or more board feet of lumber per year in Southeast Alaska. Combined demand could reach as high as 150 mmbf within the existing industry, still well under the 267 mmbf allowable under the TLMP.

Southeast Conference has played a significant part in an effort to diversify and maintain a strong economy for all of Southeast Alaska. Their efforts to support the timber industry are a much-needed boost to an industry that has been demonized and vilified by those whose personal agenda is to end any possibility of reasonable, sustainable and environmentally sound utilization of the timber in Southeast Alaska. Unfortunately Mr. Sallee can't help but try and perpetuate the half-truths, myths and outright falsehoods that have become a mantra for the environmental special interests community regarding the timber industry in Southeast Alaska.

I do believe Southeast Conference's goals should conform to fit within the existing TLMP harvest guidelines. This plan took years of work to complete and implement and was done so with extensive research and input from all interested parties.

While I would like to respond to other aspects of his letter, time and space do not allow for an adequate response.

Let's acknowledge the timber industry for the strides they have taken and made to adapt to the changing times. The timber industry is and should continue to be a contributing part of a diversified economy in Southeast Alaska.

• Michael Kampnich, a former timber faller, is the harbormaster in Craig and a part-time commercial fisherman.

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