One of the few sawmills remaining in the giant Southeast Alaska rain forest has closed.
Timber entrepreneur Steve Seley, who owns a sawmill on Gravina Island near Ketchikan, said he's fed up with dealing with the U.S. Forest Service. The federal agency manages Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest.
"The issue is: Can the federal government perform or not?" said Seley, owner of Pacific Log & Lumber. "The industry is out of capital, out of logs and almost out of desire."
Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole acknowledged that the Forest Service's timber program is flawed. But the agency has tried to get Seley the logs he needs, he said.
"I think in the short term he has sufficient wood to keep the mill open," Cole said.
Seley's mill, which employed 23 people, closed for two weeks over the holidays as usual and was due to begin winter maintenance this week. But a crucial timber sale hasn't come through, prompting him to close indefinitely.
Seley said that if nothing changes by mid-February, he will barge his lumber equipment to Lower 48 buyers.
Cole said the timber Seley wants will be advertised for sale by that time. The sale, called Buckdance-Madder, involves about 16 million board feet of timber. That's enough to keep Seley's mill operating for several months.
The sale was a compromise with environmentalists who had threatened to sue to halt another timber sale Seley had bid on dubbed Orion North, in a roadless area near Misty Fjords National Monument. Environmentalists, Seley and the Forest service agreed in April that Seley would get Buckdance-Madder in exchange for the agency dropping Orion North.
"We thought we worked out a deal that responded to Steve's needs. I can only say that we did the best we could. We share a problem: The Forest Service doesn't listen to us," said Buck Lindekugel with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Cole said the Forest Service has offered Seley timber that he chose not to bid on. With the Buckdance sale about to be offered, he's not sure why Seley is closing his mill.
The delay in releasing the Buckdance timber is part of a larger problem, according to Seley. He said the lack of a reliable timber supply made access to capital tough.
Seley said Gov. Frank Murkowski pledged his help when he met with logging representatives in Ketchikan earlier this month. But there is only so much the state can do, he said, because most of the Panhandle is federally owned.
"Our box of Band-Aids is running low, and it's time to address the issue," he said.
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