Southeast timber towns looking for new identities

Prince of Whales towns turn to the sea to replace the lost lumber economy

Posted: Tuesday, June 06, 2000

KETCHIKAN - In downtown Coffman Cove, the Ketchikan Pulp Co. bunkhouse and cookhouse sit idle, waiting to be transported to another destination.

Fifty miles south, Thorne Bay's once-bustling timber sorting yard is now conspicuously quiet as cleanup crews wrap up their jobs.

Entire neighborhoods are full of empty trailers with broken windows and remnants of past residents, a tell-tale sign that the nosedive of the state's timber industry left a gaping hole in the economies of Southeast Alaska's logging communities.

But some Prince of Wales residents are hoping to find new ways to earn a living as Thorne Bay works to develop an industrial port and Coffman Cove strives to become a transportation hub.

Since 1990, logging in the Tongass National Forest has plummeted from 471 million board feet a year to 120 million board feet, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Up until a few years ago, Ketchikan Pulp was the largest private employer in the region.

That ended when parent company Louisiana-Pacific Corp. shut down the Ketchikan pulp mill in March 1997, claiming the Forest Service allowed too few timber sales to sustain production.

L-P's decision sent shock waves through local economies.

The Prince of Wales communities of Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove, where L-P's logging operations were based, say they lost more than 75 percent of their jobs.

``It's not a good situation,'' said Ginny Tierney, Thorne Bay's city administrator.

The economic downturn sparked an exodus from the communities.

In 1997, Thorne Bay had 628 residents and Coffman Cove 251, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Two years later, those numbers had dropped to 484 in Thorne Bay and 172 in Coffman Cove, according to a local census.

Many of those who remain are either finishing up with Ketchikan Pulp or scrambling to find work elsewhere on Prince of Wales Island.

After 12 years as a logger, construction foreman Les Nelson of Coffman Cove is in his final days as a Ketchikan Pulp employee.

``It's been pretty sad,'' he said. ``I'm on the cleanup crew and I'm helping tear down Coffman Cove, Naukati and Thorne Bay.''

The communities are full of reminders of families and workers who have moved on.

``Sometimes leaving is the easy way out. Leaving is hard, but staying is harder,'' said seven-year Coffman Cove resident Linda Webster.

Still, most of the remaining residents say they intend to stay.

Patti Buss, whose husband Wesley works for Ketchikan Pulp, said she's not sure when he will be laid off. But when that day comes, Buss said, he will try to find work elsewhere on the island.

``We're planning on staying here as long as we can support our families,'' she said. ``We like it here. We like the way of life here.''

Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove both began as logging camps in the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, Thorne Bay was the world's largest logging camp, said Tierney.

``It was an adjustment when Thorne Bay became a community,'' she said. ``Before, camp bosses ran the show and dictated how things were run.''

And now both communities are turning from the woods to the sea in an effort to build new economies.

Thorne Bay is developing a $7.5 million deep-water industrial port in hopes of becoming a freight center for the east side of Prince of Wales Island, said Tierney.

The town is also weighing construction of a $300,000 shellfish testing laboratory that would be used to conduct toxicity tests on area shellfish, she said.

Coffman Cove is looking to become a transportation hub for the island.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is planning to build a terminal there for a planned Inter-Island Ferry Authority ferry run between Wrangell and Coffman Cove.

Resident Chuck Bateman is banking that the new terminal will bring an influx of visitors. After 20 years as a logger, Bateman recently built a laundry facility, RV park and public restrooms in anticipation of the ferry terminal.

``Is it a real moneymaker? No it's not,'' he said. ``To stay in Coffman Cove, you have to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.''

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