Alaska editorial: Into the future

Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009

Southeast Alaska is a tough challenge for a private employer, and the statistics bear that out. In this region, 42 percent of wages come from the public sector.

It was not always thus. But many of the private employers are not operating anymore, to some extent because of federal government action.

Alaska's senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, have introduced a bill that would address the problems with some help in moving into the future.

The Southeast Alaska Timber Industry Retooling and Restructuring Act is not more of the same-old-same-old; it does not seek to go back to the glory days when timber was king, as if that were a realistic goal in America today.

Rather, the bill would authorize up to $40 million - and no more - in grants to longtime timber and timber-related companies in Southeast Alaska to help them move into more modern timber-related processing, or to try nontimber economic opportunities.

The bill would sunset in two years.

As described by information from the senators' offices, the bill would call on the federal government to acknowledge its role in reducing economic activity in Southeast Alaska. The government would provide economic development assistance grants to allow existing timber facilities to retool "either to adopt new timber production practices that can operate profitably on smaller harvests or to convert timber plants to new types of manufacturing/business operations," Murkowski's office says.

Possible examples given are that companies that used to build timber roads for the U.S. Forest Service could buy more appropriate equipment to bid on federal highway work and water- and sewer-line work; or the grants "would allow sawmills with water access to be converted to marine repair facilities or into wood treatment plants." Those are just a couple of possibilities.

There would be conditions; the first is that the company would have to have been involved in timber work for at least a decade. And they would have to commit, inasmuch as such a commitment is possible, to maintain the same employment levels as they achieve upon retooling.

The bipartisan nature of the proposition by Sens. Murkowski and Begich will help a bill that might otherwise be eyed at askance by those who hear the word "timber" and believe that the pillaging of the forest is at hand.

Begich, the Democrat, said the bill "will help the timber industry retool so they can be competitive and help ensure that we have a diversified economy in Southeast for decades to come.

Besides, as Republican Murkowski notes, "At a time when Congress is spending nearly $800 billion to stimulate employment, this measure is a reasonable expenditure to help potentially transition employees to 21st-century jobs."

It is indeed. We hope they can shepherd it through Congress and home to Southeast.

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