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My turn: Region on track for a greener, cleaner future

Posted: Monday, April 06, 2009

The recent sunshine is just one thing for Southeast Alaskans to smile about. In the past few weeks, both the Alaska Legislature and U.S. Congress have taken bipartisan actions that will boost the Southeast Alaska economy and steer our region toward a greener, cleaner and more sustainable future.

The state Legislature recently funded several exciting renewable energy projects in Southeast Alaska, including Ketchikan's Whitman Lake hydroelectric project, Hydaburg's Reynolds Creek hydro project, and an electric intertie to bring renewable power to Coffman Cove and Naukati. We'll have more work to do to get Southeast communities like Kake, Angoon, Hoonah and others off diesel, but funding these projects is a great start.

Properly developing clean, affordable and renewable power is one key to creating vibrant and sustainable communities in Southeast Alaska. Protecting and restoring our forest is another. Together they provide jobs for Southeast residents, support sustainable fisheries and wildlife populations, provide homes with affordable lighting and heat, and also save local residents and businesses money.

As part of the federal economic stimulus plan, Congress put $2.4 million toward overdue forest restoration work in Alaska. We applaud Congress' action and hope it is a sign they recognize that the Tongass' healthy forests, fish and wildlife are the foundation of our local economy and Southeast Alaska's unique quality of life. When announcing the restoration funding, Sen. Mark Begich expressed his hope that "even more Alaskans can be put to work addressing needs in the nation's largest national forests."

We certainly agree.

And there are more opportunities for Tongass restoration work. As the nation's largest and wildest national forest, the Tongass has a long list of needed projects, like restoring winter deer habitat on Chichagof Island or repairing blocked fish culverts in places like the upper Castle River. These projects could put Alaskans to work right away. With the Forest Service yet to distribute over $1 billion of the stimulus money, there should be even more money available for Tongass restoration.

The Tongass is the world's last large, coastal temperate rainforest. It is the crown jewel of our national forest system and the heart of Southeast Alaska. With Southeast Alaska's skilled, willing and equipped labor pool, federal forest restoration money can have an immediate and positive impact on our economy and communities by keeping our amazing forest resource healthy.

More energy support could also come soon. Sen. Bert Stedman and Rep. Bill Thomas introduced revisions to the Southeast Energy Fund - Senate Bill 132 and House Bill 166 - to allow money in the fund to go to local renewable energy projects. Another of Stedman's bills, Senate Bill 59, removes unintended restrictions on the use of electric cars on Alaskan roads. They're already on the road in Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. And Reps. Bob Buch and Bryce Edgmon introduced House Bill 20 to allow our fishing fleet to take advantage of long-term, low-interest loans for energy efficient upgrades.

One of the most visionary bills, Sen. Lesil McGuire's Senate Bill 150, would help Alaskans bring emerging energy technologies - such as tidal, geothermal, and biomass - into use. Southeast Alaska has an abundance of renewable energy resources. Developing, producing and using cutting-edge energy technology could provide sustainable and environmentally-friendly jobs and income to Southeast communities for decades.

Imagine a plant in Ketchikan employing welders, electricians, researchers and others in tidal power research and turbine production, or communities running on electricity made from municipal waste and being able to store surplus hydropower for unexpected outages.

While this may seem a distant dream, I've recently had the opportunity to meet dozens of Alaskans from across the ideological spectrum with the ideas, talent and work ethic to make great things happen for Southeast Alaska. Many of these Alaskans are working together to find lasting forest management and renewable energy solutions that incorporate all of the ways Southeast Alaskans use and depend on the Tongass.

The potential is here for exciting forest and energy solutions that are local, durable and workable. Continued support from the state and our congressional delegation will go a long way toward realizing Southeast Alaska's potential for a greener, cleaner and brighter future.

• Lindsey Ketchel is executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.



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