Institute says growth of the economy is tied to conservation

Sonoran Institute speaker to make presentation Thursday at Baranof

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Southeast Alaska's economy and conservation may go hand in hand, analysts say.

The Sonoran Institute has identified a positive correlation between economic growth and protected public land - a significant fact in the West, where more than half the region's land is in public ownership.

The nonprofit organization that promotes conservation also has found that economic development doesn't always involve resource extraction. The traditional staples of the West's economy - mining, logging, oil and gas development - have shifted to high-end service industries such as financing, engineering and real estate.

Ben Alexander, associate director of the institute's socioeconomics program, will talk about how the West's economic transition can be applied to Southeast Alaska and how Southeast Alaska can learn from communities that have gone through the transition. His presentation will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Baranof Hotel.

Russell Heath, executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the Sonoran Institute can help the region ease through the economic transition.

"Most people think economic development in Southeast Alaska is involved in mining and logging," Heath said. "These industries definitely play a role but there are more options available to us. We hope the Sonoran Institute can widen the debate of economic development."

Alexander said a preliminary review of Southeast Alaska's economy suggests that it is still early in its transition.

"In Juneau, the economy is overly reliant on government employment and unhealthily so," Alexander said. "But it will change as people recognize more opportunities. It is important to balance existing industries while capitalizing on new opportunities."

For a community to thrive, partnership among its various components is essential, Alexander said.

"It takes coordinated activities to succeed," Alexander said. "The government establishes regulation frameworks and builds infrastructure. The environmental groups are considered stewards of public lands. The businesses are entrepreneurs that are going to take the risk to make the opportunities. The (non-government organizations) are often the glue of the communities."

Alexander's trip to Juneau exemplifies such a partnership. He is invited by three organizations that might not always agree with each another - the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, the Juneau Economic Development Council and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Heath said the conservation group is co-hosting an event with the Juneau Chamber of Commerce for the first time. "All the three organizations have an interest in economic development," Heath said. "We had enough in common to work together."

David Summers, president of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said although people perceive the chamber as pro-development and the conservation council as anti-development, both organizations want a balance between conservation and economic growth.

"People like to live in a place where there is clean air, clean water and a lot of space as long as they have a job," Summers said. "We are helping to find a balance and create a healthy economy and environment."

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