My Turn: Gravina Island, the only way to go

Posted: Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Ketchikan has its back to the wall - literally and economically.

The city sits on the west side of Revillagigedo Island. The east half of the island, is the 2.1-million-acre Misty Fjord National Monument that also surrounds the south end of Revillagigedo. The monument is more than twice the size of the state of Rhode Island - 988,800 acres. Ten miles north, across Behm Canal, is Cleveland Peninsula. But much closer to Ketchikan, west across Tongass Narrows, is Gravina Island. The only way to go.

There is impressive opposition to doing anything on Gravina. The Forest Service proposes a timber sale served by 22 miles of road. That attracted 6,000 complaints from environmentalists in other states. The main reason is that the Gravina sale is the first one since President Clinton attempted to enforce his roadless ban in the Tongass.

Also, Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, said in a January 2001 editorial that it opposes old growth timber harvest. There is no other type in Alaska.

The Anchorage newspaper is one of 20 owned by the California-based McClatchy chain. Its circulation has dropped 4 percent daily and 10 percent Sunday in five years. That might be partially blamed on its editorial stands and news coverage. It definitely can be blamed on the general economy of Alaska. The Alaska economy isn't quite as good as economists, secure on government payrolls, maintain.

Ketchikan knows. Its share of the Alaska economy is slumping. Since Ketchikan Pulp Company closed its mill, a 101-year-old major department store, a drug store, the major commercial printing plant and several small businesses also have closed. Ketchikan's television station is shutting down. The Plaza and Salmon Landing malls are half-empty. Ketchikan General Hospital is reducing staff and services to avoid $1 million in red ink. School enrollment is down 18 percent in three years, indicating that 300 families have left town. There is a question whether the Ward Cove salmon cannery will operate this summer because of a financially depressed salmon industry. Visitor industry officials worry about the coming season because of the national recession.

However, Ketchikan has some powerful support and a bright future if Ketchikan residents make their voices heard. Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Congressman Don Young have obtained authorization for a bridge to Gravina Island and Ketchikan's airport.

It might come as a surprise to stateside environmentalists to know that Gravina isn't the virgin wilderness their organizations described while enlisting opposition to the Gravina timber sale. One of Alaska's major airports lies along the eastern shore across the Narrows from Ketchikan. It hosts jetliners of Alaska Airlines, Evergreen International Airways, private corporations and the military. Feeder carriers also base there.

One of the Southeast sawmills left in operation is north of the airport along with a planned harbor site at Lewis Reef. South of the airport is Black Sands State Marine Park. Most of the rest of the east side of Gravina is private, state, Alaska Mental Health Trust, University of Alaska or borough property.

The proposed timber harvest area is in the interior of the island out of the view from the community or steamer channels. Actually, national forest land on Gravina cannot be seen from Ketchikan.

The bridge access, as proposed by the state Department of Transportation, gets the most out of the $160-175 million by going via Pennock Island. Pennock, a small island, lies between Ketchikan and Gravina so the bridge accesses usable private and borough land on both islands. A bridge approach could form a breakwater for another small boat harbor.

Sen. Stevens obtained $20 million to start the project. That money is being used for the EIS and engineering. DOT has budgeted $80 million in fiscal 2003 to start construction, according to its Web site. The project is to be completed in five years.

The state estimates up to 600 direct jobs for the construction. Those jobs boost not only Ketchikan and Saxman but also Metlakatla, Wrangell, Petersburg and Prince of Wales communities. Improved ferry service makes it feasible for residents of those communities to seek construction jobs. Those jobs boost the state's entire economy and especially boost the area hurt by losing its timber industry.

By the time the bridge is completed, Ketchikan should have additional power from completion of the Swan Lake-Tyee Lake Intertie. The shipyard might be completed and operating at full potential. The timber, salmon and tourism industries should be stabilized and benefit from easier access to the airport and Gravina. The Bradfield Canal road to the Canadian highway system might be under construction. Probable legal challenges to the Gravina timber sale should be history with loggers driving to work daily from Ketchikan and Saxman without paying a ferry fare.

Forest Supervisor Tom Purchlerz makes his decision in May. Our leaders and Ketchikan taxpayers must express their support for the bridge in public meetings before the public process ends March 8.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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