Congress' recent vote to end government subsidies for building new Tongass logging roads is a clear signal that American taxpayers are tired of paying through the nose to support the Tongass timber program. As a business owner, I'm not surprised that folks in the Lower 48 are balking at this use of our tax dollars. To employ about 200 people in direct Tongass timber jobs, we are shelling out $36 million a year - that's roughly $170,000 for every single one of these jobs.
One of these days, Alaska is not going to have all of the federal money that we get today. When that happens, Southeast Alaska had better be ready. To help us prepare, the U.S. Forest Service needs to support the diversity of businesses around here, such as tourism and recreation outfits, fishermen and timber businesses that can make it on their own, instead of pouring resources into the money-losing timber program.
I live in Tenakee Springs, where I own and operate a construction company. Tenakee is currently in a construction boom, with five new homes built this past year. It might not sound like much, but I can assure you that it's a lot of activity for a town of 100 people.
Since Tenakee is completely inaccessible by road, we need to have construction supplies and other materials barged from Juneau or Seattle. It is frustrating to be surrounded by a public forest that is supposed to be managed for "multiple use" and still feel that I have little opportunity to fell a tree for timber to build my own house.
The Forest Service does have a personal-use program through which we can cut up to 10,000 board feet a year, the equivalent of about 3 large Sitka spruce. (For reference, I've used about 30,000 board feet to construct my family's current home.) When I applied for my personal-use permit, it took me a month to receive a response from the Forest Service. The delay, according to the Forest Service, was because they simply had not hired staff to review the permits.
Meanwhile, I've watched as floatplanes dispatch crews of 10 or more to plan brand new logging roads and plot yet another massive timber sale that if far too large for anyone in Tenakee to consider buying.
Another irony in obtaining my personal-use permit occurred because the Forest Service requires an agency biologist to look at each and every proposal on the ground, even if it's just one tree. Unbelievably, the Forest Service said that I couldn't use several trees because there were sensitive irises in the area. This is ludicrous considering that the agency is planning to clearcut an entire mountainside in plain view of my new home and the entire town of Tenakee. I sincerely doubt that whatever logging company gets the contract (though I'm not sure there is one willing to invest in such a losing sale) will carefully teeter enormous old-growth trees down the side of a mountain so as to avoid all irises, lilies, mushrooms, devils club, blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries and any other undergrowth. Indeed not.
There are stories like mine across the region of small businesses and guide operations that struggle every year or even go under because the Forest Service doesn't have the staff to serve us in a timely or efficient manner. On Prince of Wales Island, the Forest Service didn't have a single person working on special-use permits for an entire year, meaning that businesses wanting to tap into the potentially huge market for tourism on the island could not get permits to operate that year. The Tongass is public land, but clearly, not all of the public has equal access to the forest or responsibility for sustaining it.
To say that the Forest Service's priorities and policies are misguided is an understatement. When you think about what Southeast Alaska's economy will look like in 20 years, the pulp mills of the past century just aren't there. Tourism and recreation are, and so are small business operations like my own. We should all be preparing for this future by putting some sense back in the way we run the Tongass.
Gordon Chew is a builder in Tenakee Springs.