Tongass Tales: Fairy and ferry

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Alaska Department of Transportation's future for Southeast Alaska includes more roads with shorter ferry runs. Shorter ferry runs mean lower cost to the traveler. Naturally, environmental organizations oppose roads. Current ferry workers oppose changing the ferry system. Both groups advocate pouring more money into a dying system that already requires a subsidy of $32 million a year.

Dying? Look at the DOT Web site. In the 10 years between 1992 and 2002 ferry boardings in Southeast dropped to 263,000 from 373,000 passengers a year. That 263,000 is the lowest figure since 1979. With the timber industry shutting down it is understandable that Ketchikan boardings are down to 35,000 from 66,000. Sitka is down to 13,000 a year from 20,000. Even Juneau, not particularly affected by the timber drop, is down to 71,000 from 75,000.

A major reason for the traffic drop is that the ships are tied up too many months a year. Another is cost (less service at a higher price is no way to compete with roads open 24-7). A backpacker stretched out in a ferry solarium can travel from Prince Rupert to Haines for $143; not bad but still up $9 in three years. For a couple and their camper traveling Prince Rupert to Haines the fare is between $656 and $883, without meals and stateroom. It's more if the vehicle is over 23 feet. Many highway miles can be covered for that amount of money.

A camper couple traveling between Bellingham and Haines must pay $1,200 to $2,000. For one-half that amount a couple can take a week-long Southeast luxury cruise, meals and room included. Not surprising, cruise ship traffic has increased each of the last 10 years as ferry traffic dropped. Cost also is the reason most van traffic has switched to barges.

Something had to be done and Gov. Frank Murkowski's DOT is doing it. First, lifting the roadless ban that the Clinton Administration imposed on Tongass National Forest was necessary. The Bush Administration lifted it.

Greenpeace tells a fairy tale that in lifting the roadless ban that Bush sided with his "timber baron buddies" to allow "large-scale industrial logging."

Steve Seley of Ketchikan, Kirk Dahlstrom of Klawock and the Buhler family of Wrangell will be surprised to learn that they are "Bush buddies" with "timber baron" status while cutting less than 100 million board feet of timber a year. They are what is left of Southeast's timber industry along with about a dozen one-man operations.

At this time, Wrangell is shut down. Seley is running at one-third capacity for lack of logs and to get his dry kiln working for value-added processing that environmentalists say they favor. Dahlstrom manages to keep 40 people working. The three mills combined employ fewer people than the Wal-Mart in Ketchikan, the Fred Meyer in Juneau or one of Carr's Quality Centers in Anchorage.

The most irrational fairy tale about the Tongass was told last month by a Forest Service whistleblower. He testified that rafts of illegally harvested trees were towed up the Unuk River and broken up to become logs for salvage. Why would a tug operator risk his vessel in such a risky maneuver? Where is the profit if the logs are just rafted up again? Does the whistleblower know that state permits are required for log salvaging?

The fairy tale is logistically impossible without a giant conspiracy that would involve more than the Forest Service and Ketchikan Pulp Company. It would involve the timber fallers, who are paid for what they cut; the independent scaling bureau that measures board feet for the buyer and seller; tug operators who get paid for each stick they tow; U.S. Customs that checks exports; a pilots' association, required to guide freighters in and out of port (no one in their right mind would tow a log raft across the Pacific, would they?); union longshoremen; the state if salvage logs are involved; and the U.S. Coast Guard, concerned with navigation when log rafts break up.

The state needed the road ban lifted, not only so the small mills can obtain timber, but so it can extend roads to improve transportation in Southeast and so that it can construct the Southeast power intertie to provide clean hydro power to communities burning diesel oil.

To oppose lifting the roadless ban on only 300,000 acres of the Tongass, while more than 6 million acres are locked away in roadless status, is vindictive. It demonstrates that Greenpeace, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Earth First, the Sierra Club and others are intent on stamping out timber dependent families in Wrangell, Klawock and Ketchikan, even if it inhibits improved transportation and cleaner energy. They should be ashamed.

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