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My turn: Veneer plant isn't acceptable Tongass industry, will do harm

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

It is good that the Empire has elevated the issue of reopening the Ketchikan veneer mill, even though I believe their (March 3) editorial was factually in error and reached unjustified conclusions. The thrust of the editorial was that the veneer mill will do no harm, free markets will determine the mill's fate, and that in opposing the mill, environmentalists are recanting their past policy.

Doing no harm? The editorial claims "there is no returning to the days of mammoth pulp mills." The fact is in order to feed both the existing mills with sawlogs and the veneer mill with the grade of logs it would utilize, the Alaska Forest Association and the governor are seeking the same level of logging as during the pulp mill era, 360 million board feet per year. State timberlands alone cannot sustain a veneer mill for more than a couple of years, and the Tongass will have to be the primary timber source for both the existing sawmills and the proposed veneer mill.

A return to that level of logging, and the damage we all know it would cause, is not acceptable. The Ketchikan veneer mill is a step backward that must be rejected.

With its claim that there are millions of roadless acres on the Tongass, the editorial swept important facts under the rug. The vast majority of those roadless acres are lands that are not forested or are not commercially "suitable" forest lands. Indeed, while the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest, its "suitable" timber base is one of the smaller ones, amounting to 11 percent of the total acreage before the native corporation withdrawals were even made. The fight now is where it always has been, over the much smaller amount of prime forest that's important to wildlife, subsistence, tourism, and recreation. The timber industry ignores this reality.

The pulp mill-era timber industry did tremendous environmental damage, and a reconstituted industry (with the veneer mill) will build on top of that legacy of damage. It won't be starting from square one and will consume much of the prime roadless forest that is left on the Tongass.

The free-market determining the mill's viability? Unfortunately, it seems we will never know what kind of wood products industry the free market could actually support in Alaska. The federal government heavily subsidized logging in Alaska during the pulp mill days, and continues to do so today. Each year the Forest Service wastes millions of dollars on its Tongass timber program, squandering tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for every acre of forest they clear-cut.

Far from being a free-market venture, the veneer mill is the epitome of a government-directed, government-subsidized business. Ask anyone living in Ketchikan how much public money has been spent over the last six years to build the veneer mill, subsidize its six months of operation, pay off its debts, and finally to buy its bankrupt remains - more than $20 million of taxpayer's money spent by the latest tally. There is every reason not to send more of the public's forest down the same rat hole as this wasted largess.

Enviros blasting what they advocated? The Empire claims that in opposing the veneer mill, environmentalists are going back on their advocacy for a timber industry that relies on "value-added" products. This mischaracterizes the kind of industry environmentalists have advocated. The position that has been advocated by environmental groups is that if an industry is to exist at all on the Tongass, it must be sustainable and use the existing road system. It must be compatible with other uses and not jeopardize wildlife populations. And it should be a "high" value-added industry. One that maximizes the number of jobs per board foot, and employs local people. The Veneer mill, like the old pulp mills, will not be "high value added" in terms of jobs per acre cut. It will instead rely on machines to "peel" logs, and will send these "peels" south to be assembled into plywood by machines.

For these reasons, I and other Southeast Alaskans, are proud to work with NRDC to stop attempts to rebuild a destructive industrial scale timber industry in Southeast Alaska.

• Mark Rorick is the chairman of the Juneau group of the Sierra Club and a board member of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.



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