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As the new head of the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, Dennis Bschor has an eye on recreation, communities and what he calls the state's "world-class resources."
Bschor arrived in Juneau in January as Alaska's regional forester, ready to oversee the Tongass and Chugach National Forests and 870 Forest Service employees in the state. He faces an ongoing debate about Tongass wilderness and jobs, the upcoming release of a revised Chugach Forest Plan, and likely battles over planning, tourism and timber.
Most recently, Bschor was in Washington, D.C., as the director of the agency's recreation, heritage and wilderness resources staff. Alaska has been leading the nation in developing a strategy to manage tourism and recreation, he said.
"You can have tourism, but if the community isn't ready for it as far as infrastructure, then tourism is going to overwhelm the community. If the Forest Service isn't ready, it overwhelms us," he said.
During his time in Washington, Bschor worked on a pilot project that gives campgrounds, visitor centers and other facilities the flexibility to charge fees that can used for improvements on site. Normally, the agency's revenue goes back to the U.S. Treasury. During a time in which recreation budgets have been mostly flat, the program generated $1.2 million in revenue last year in Alaska, including $589,145 in the Juneau area.
"When you take a look at the reason why people visit national forests and grasslands across the United States, we have statistics that show that 95 to 98 percent of people are visiting because they're recreating," Bschor said. "We're trying to pay attention to the recognition the general public and visitors have for our forests and recreation."
The Forest Service in Alaska also is pushing collaborative relationships with the public and communities. A recent tourism workshop in Juneau, meetings about Wrangell's economy, and discussions about the Situk River corridor near Yakutat are examples, staff members said.
Bschor said, "I think that whether you're a district ranger or a forest supervisor or even a regional forester, you're always balancing what the local needs and desires are, which may be beyond the capacity of the land to provide. And you're having to balance those kinds of things with the regional and national needs.
"I've been a ranger twice, I've been a forest supervisor once. So I'm talking from experience. Having that local ranger living in the community and understanding those local needs is one of the strengths we have in this region," he said.
The Forest Service's current strategic priorities in Alaska are community sustainability, recreation and tourism, organizational effectiveness, Alaska Natives and ecological sustainability. Bschor, whose first month of the job was interrupted after his wife broke her knee in a skiing accident, also lists safety as a goal.
"I feel strongly that we ought to look at our facilities, the programs we provide and really do the best job we can to provide a safe environment, a safe atmosphere to work and plan," he said.
Bschor is joined by Steve Brink, who was named deputy regional forester for resources last fall. Brink was the team leader on the Tongass Land Management Plan revision from 1989 to 1995.
Brink points to opportunities for small businesses and Alaska Natives through Forest Service contracting. Hiring local people to clear trails, build cabins and maintain cabins benefits local communities and workers, he said.
"For example, we have 80,000 acres of second growth that needs to be pre-commercially thinned and in some cases pruned," he said. "Historically what's happened is when we've put those acres out to bid, we'll get someone from Oregon bringing people up to do the work, put the money in their wallet and go home. We don't get the economic multiplier of having that money stay in the local community and change hands six or seven times."
Brink also sees opportunities to process more wood in state. Alaskans consume about 100 million board feet of lumber and wood products a year. That's about the same amount the Alaska timber industry produces, he said.
"What I would like to do is everything possible to get Alaskan wood used by Alaskan people," he said. "Right now you have an industry that's trying to compete with British Columbia and the Lower 48 and, in some cases, the rest of the world to produce wood products. At the same time, Alaskan consumers are buying wood that's shipped from Puget Sound to Alaska. It doesn't make sense."
To that end, the Forest Service plans to distribute $2 million this year for secondary manufacturing projects. The agency is reviewing 27 applications from around the state that would use the funds for dry kilns, planers and dry lumber storage facilities.
"I'm a firm believer that in order to be good land stewards, the Forest Service has to have healthy, vibrant economies in local communities in terms of small businesses," Brink said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.