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Ketchikan's latest halting attempt to revive a dormant timber industry and recover its economy has again attracted the misguided wrath of a national campaign to seal off the Tongass National Forest.
Ted Falconer of Washington state-based T.F. Inc. is the latest to negotiate with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough in an attempt to open a veneer mill at the site of the former Ketchikan Pulp Mill. That lumbering old giant, which drew attention for mulching the forest and laying waste to Prince of Wales Island while propped up by long-term government timber contracts, is long since gone, and with it Ketchikan's industrial past. Environmentalists nationwide should not equate the new with the old, and should give Southeast Alaska a chance at something besides tourism jobs.
Falconer said last week that he had received more than 150 letters from around the country, jamming his fax machine. The National Resources Defense Council coordinated the effort, and Falconer said the faxes came in on 1.5-minute intervals, all from NRDC's Washington office. The NRDC said it had received 15,000 comments and would place most of them on a computer disk for Falconer's benefit.
Message received. People care about the Tongass, one of America's most majestic places. And apparently this time around the Tongass has taken on the poster-forest role for a national debate about maintaining roadless areas. For Alaskans to turn their backs on the wealth to be generated over generations by a largely roadless and natural forest would be foolish. But there is little indication that such a scenario is even possible in modern economics and politics. There is simply no returning to the days of mammoth pulp mills.
For that matter, it is unclear whether a veneer plant works economically. It's been tried in Ketchikan and it was a fiasco. But viability this go-around should be for the free market to determine, and not for hundreds of faxes.
There are 9.4 million acres of roadless area in this archipelago, of which 300,000 the U.S. Forest Service says could be available to timber harvest. No doubt there are areas within that zone that are too precious - both aesthetically and economically - and should be saved for recreation or fisheries habitat. But to draw a hard line and tell Ketchikan that it can never have more wood, regardless of how modest the proposal in historic terms, is to tell a city that no one cares about it anymore.
Ketchikan has paid dearly for the excesses of the past, losing 500 jobs when the pulp mill closed in 1997 and more than 1,000 residents since. Throughout Southeast Alaska, about 3,000 logging and sawmill jobs have left in the past decade or so, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. Allowing Ketchikan to diversify its tourism-dependent economy with a few timber jobs will not reverse that exodus or endanger Alaska's wildness.
It is ironic that environmentalists who, during the Ketchikan Pulp days, insisted on a timber industry that embraced value-added products would now team up on an upstart that potentially satisfies their wish. Hiring a few dozen people to make things with trees does not spell doom for a national treasure.