My Turn: Alaska needs to revitalize dormant timber industry

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2004

With so much of the future of our rural Southeast Alaska communities at stake, it's time to restate some of the forest facts surrounding our Tongass National Forest. It's a valuable asset for community development and stability.

Our federal forest management places a high level of importance on conservation. Under the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan less than 10 percent of the remaining high-volume coarse canopy old growth would ever be cut. There are 4.1 million acres on the Tongass suitable for timber production. Only 16 percent of the Tongass forest's timberland - a sustainable level - would ever be harvested.

We need to revitalize our dormant timber industry. To do this, we need to review history and take advantage of new technologies. In the 1950s, incentives were needed to attract businesses to Alaska to build manufacturing plants for both high- and low-quality wood. Alaskan communities wanted year-round jobs. Long-term timber purchase contracts assured the new businesses that their investments, totaling more than $100 million, would have a chance to compete and hopefully to prosper.

This premise is equally important today. Since the federal government has a lock and key on the our regional timber supply, new businesses must have reasonable assurances that timber can be available to purchase - so that businesses can assure markets and employees that they can supply wood products. Many of our communities need these jobs. The loss of timber receipts hurts our communities in times of need, as money collected from timber sales was returned to the Southeast Alaska communities for schools and roads. Some call this a subsidy; we think it is a benefit.

We hear so much about the cumulative environmental costs of timber sales. What about the cumulative economic benefits (local purchases, jobs, indirect jobs)? Money returned to the U.S. Treasury is only one form of economic benefit or cost. It costs the forest managers $36/thousand board feet to prepare, appraise, advertise, sell, and administer timber sales. Recently, the average price paid by timber purchasers is $42/thousand board feet.

We need to take advantage of new research and technologies, such as more efficient processing and dry kilns. This is exactly where the industry was headed in 1990s before timber sale contracts were unilaterally canceled. Ketchikan Pulp Co. installed a second-growth mill in Ketchikan. Alaska Pulp wanted to construct a medium-density fiberboard plant to replace its Sitka pulp mill. But loss of an assured timber supply prevented a successful transition.

Today, the remaining two family-owned sawmills are incorporating new efficiencies. Pacific Lumber is currently installing a dry kiln and storage shed. Viking Lumber at Klawock uses family-owned resaw and finishing mills in Washington. The Ketchikan Wood Technology Center will complete establishment of Alaska specific grading rules for all four primary species of southeast Alaska wood so the true structural value will be realized. The Sitka Alaska Wood Utilization Research Center has shown that retail buyers will pay a premium for Southeast Alaska wood just because of appearance.

Implementing the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan can recreate a sustainable timber industry. It would allow an even flow of 267 million board feet of timber annually. At this rate of harvesting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that there would be no threat of any fish or wildlife species ever becoming threatened or endangered. Integrating sawmills and other wood manufacturing facilities is likely to need 300 million board feet.

No one will make multi-million dollar investments in efficient processors where there is no assurance of timber.

There is nowhere else in the United States where the federal government decided it had to manage 94 percent of the land (80 percent national forest and 14 percent national park). Native corporations own 3 percent, the state owns 2 percent, and private individuals own 0.7 percent. Communities will never have a stable property tax base to provide basic services when less than 1 percent of the land is taxable.

If the federal government is not willing to provide access to the natural resources on the Tongass, then it should either give a large portion of it to the state or to private enterprise to manage for our future.

• George Woodbury lives in Wrangell and is the timber coordinator for the Southeast Conference.

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