Lean Times

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008

These are not prosperous days for Southeast's timber industry. The mills are starving and the loggers have left town.

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Katie Ratcliffe / Juneau Empire File
Katie Ratcliffe / Juneau Empire File

"The patient is very ill," said Jack Phelps, a former industry spokesman, who now works for the state's wood products program.

Timber provided 378 direct jobs in Southeast Alaska last year, about 1 percent of the jobs in the area. That's down from more than 3,500 jobs at the industry's peak in 1990, according to state numbers.

Those in the industry now debate whether the patient can recover. After a decade of litigation and rewrites, the U.S. Forest Service has released a plan for how timber sales and all the other uses of the Tongass National Forest will be managed over the next 10 years.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham hasn't found much to love in the new plan. He says it will never allow the Forest Service to sell the amount of timber the industry needs to survive or thrive.

Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said he respects Graham's position, but his own is different.

"Our mandate is multiple uses," he said.

He also doesn't have the funding to prepare such large sales, he said. Nonetheless, he'll release a five-year plan in the next few weeks that he says will allow the industry to stabilize.

"I think this plan is something we can actually implement for a change," he said.

Most in the industry said they couldn't see Southeast Alaska returning to the days when timber sold in the billions of board-feet.

Not everyone laments smaller harvests, of course.

Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, spent years fighting timber harvests he said would harm the Tongass. SEACC has never wanted the industry to disappear completely, he said, but it should be appropriately sized.

"The industry should be fitted to the resource, not the resource to the industry," he said.

But pockets of hope remain for timber, in small-scale sales and high-value or novel uses of this renewable resource. Wood could, some say, even solve Southeast's energy crisis.

Waiting for timber

Although the new Tongass plan has not been challenged and is therefore a go, it will take a while for the Forest Service to start offering timber for sale. Thirteen sales totaling several hundred million board-feet were tied up in court until the plan was done, Cole said.

"There's very little wood we can offer for this year," he said.

Timber troubles began with market changes overseas and huge investments local mills would need to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The two largest pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan closed in the 1990s, before the biggest legal battles even began.

Then from 1997, environmental groups challenged forest plan after plan, as well as most major timber sales.

"We were spending a huge amount of money on planning and not seeing any output," Cole said.

In 1990, about 1 billion board-feet were harvested in Southeast Alaska. Last year, 167 million board-feet were cut.

Heath said he didn't know how many lawsuits environmentalists filed, but said it was ironic that pro-development Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, forced their hand.

Congress - urged by Stevens - required that legal challenges of the environmental reviews timber sales undergo had to be filed within 30 days. Heath said environmentalists filed many more lawsuits than they might have in a more flexible system.

While the Forest Service sales were being challenged, the state of Alaska "offered every stick of timber it could legally offer," according to Phelps.

Graham maintains that Southeast Alaska must go back to being an integrated industry, meaning that wood can be both cut and processed here, to be profitable. But mills face substantial obstacles.

Next year, the Forest Service plans to clear more than 100 million board-feet for sale, and more after that, Cole said. The agency also aims for three years' worth of shelf volume, or timber that is ready to sell but hasn't been offered yet.

Shelf volume is necessary to assure mills and the banks that lend huge amounts to them that their investments will be repaid, which takes a long time in this business.

If the timber industry grows, the Forest Service can sell more timber, under the Tongass Land Management Plan's principle of adaptive management.

Areas more highly valued for habitat and wilderness aren't open to logging and will be only if the timber industry makes a comeback.

But Graham said it won't work for timber businesses. He said the available stands are too expensive to log, and thus the industry will never get the higher harvest levels he says it needs.

Later, foresters hope to transition to using young-growth wood. It has been touted as a more sustainable timber offering that would stick to previously logged areas.

But that won't be ready for another 20 to 30 years, Cole said.

For now, Southeast's timber industry faces another year of slim offerings.

Hope: Mom-and-pop-size sales

Gordon Chew, of Tenakee Springs, is a builder by trade, not a logger. But last year, he bid successfully on the Last Call timber sale in Tenakee Springs and bought 66,000 board-feet of timber, or about 300 trees.

Tongass managers, timber people and environmentalists are optimistic about small-scale timber sales such as Last Call.

"There is always going to be a certain amount of logging that is feasible here," said Phil Sammon, Tongass forest public affairs officer. "Some of these people won't do 10,000 board-feet a year."

Chew bought a mill he can tow with a pickup truck. The Sitka forest ranger came last fall to teach him how to yard the logs, or drag them out, without damaging the ground.

At 52, he's making a go of learning what is usually considered a younger man's trade.

The plan is to restore the Snyder Mercantile, a Gold Rush-era building on pilings in the heart of Tenakee Springs, and to build and remodel houses in town.

It's a huge gamble. Chew is hoping for cheaper wood. Until now, he's been barging in wood from Hoonah. Transportation is expensive.

But Chew said this bet isn't just about the money.

"I make a lot more money building houses," he said.

Chew said he sees himself setting an example for a new generation of sustainable timber users, including, perhaps, his 19-year-old son who may work in the woods with him this summer.

More hope: New wood products

Several times a year, the Tongass Futures Roundtable brings together Tongass stakeholders who once only met in the courtroom. The buzz at the last meeting was about how wood pellets could solve Southeast's energy problems.

It's one of the ideas being tossed around for novel uses of the Tongass and its wood. Alaska timber is more expensive than wood from other parts of the planet, or even from British Columbia, according to a 2003 Department of Labor study. It's hard to compete selling this wood in relatively raw forms.

One solution is to sell processed products that add the most value to each tree cut. Heath of SEACC, for example, said he was encouraged by recent Outside interest in dense, finely grained Alaska wood for musical instruments.

"The industry should be high value, with as many jobs per tree cut as possible," he said.

Another solution is to sell wood locally.

The $42 million Southeast Alaska spends each year on fuel oil could be reduced to $28 million by using wood pellets, according to a paper by Daniel Parrent of the Juneau Economic Development Council.

Existing mills already produce ample waste wood for such a project, Viking mill owner Dahlstrom said in February.

A new gas turbine technology could make wood power comparable in cost to hydroelectric power, Parrent wrote, and certainly cheaper than diesel.

Parrent wrote that the new technology would be clean as well as efficient.

"No one is promoting smelly, dirty, polluting wood burners," he wrote.

The only hitch: several million dollars. Someone just has to invest in a pellet mill.

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