My Turn: There is economic hope for Southeast

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2003

Our "fairweather friends" are back. Greenpeace is bringing its 236-foot cruise ship, Esperanza, to Southeast, after a winter in warmer climes. It is skipping British Columbia this summer. Greenpeace's penchant for protest suffered a setback in May when the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that Greenpeace, and its individual protesters, owed wages to loggers blockaded from working.

And the Sierra Club has hired Diana Rhoades of Anchorage to travel Southeast ferries this summer. She will visit communities and collect comments in favor, she hopes, of enforcing a roadless rule in Tongass National Forest. Her trip is called the "Roadless Policy Cruise to Victory."

Except in Juneau, Greenpeace and Rhoades will find a cool reception. Their claims differ from facts found on U.S. Forest Service or state Fish and Game Web sites, facts Southeast residents know.

Fish runs and game populations since 1990 have been at historic highs. Huge corporations are not poised to mow down the forest. Three small sawmills and a few dozen one or two-man mills are all that is left of the industry. So there won't be much opportunity for peaceful protests, which probably aren't planned anyway. Why sit in a tree during a Southeast rain storm, miles from the media, instead of aboard a nice warm yacht.

With Forest Service staff on ferries having more accurate information than that provided by the Sierra Club, Ms. Rhoades might have to do a lot of explaining. The heart isn't being cut out of the forest. Under the current Tongass Land Management Plan, after the next 120 years, 83 percent of the 5 million acres of commercial old growth timber will remain uncut and unroaded.

According to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau, there are plenty of roads in Southeast now to access timber. They are partly right. What they are not right about is claiming there is no need for additional roads, roads that would provide Southeast communities with cheaper access and cheaper power.

The Southeast Conference, an organization representing 29 Panhandle communities, is out with two economic reports. "Southeast Alaska Proposed Public Road and Ferry Projects" was completed in March. A draft of the "Southeast Alaska Intertie Study, Phase 2" was issued in June. They are significant because each requires rights of way over land and sea - identical rights of way. The 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan recognizes them.

The first phase of the Southeast Power Intertie, connecting Ketchikan's Swan Lake hydro plant to Wrangell-Petersburg's Tyee Lake plant, is under construction. The next phase is an intertie between Kake and Petersburg, and from Juneau's Snettisham to Hoonah via the Greens Creek mine on Admiralty Island.

It is necessary if Kake expects its fish processing plant to operate competitively and Hoonah expects to grow as a tourist port. Currently, Kake and Hoonah residents pay 40 cents per kilowatt hour for power generated by diesels compared with less than 10 cents in the bigger towns supplied by hydro. That also is why Kake households use one-half the power of the average Petersburg home. Extending a power line and road between Kake and Petersburg requires upgrading logging roads and some new construction.

To access Hoonah also means roads. A 4.5-mile extension of the North Douglas Highway to Middle Point accesses a ferry terminal site. The ferry would run frequently across Stephens Passage to Young Bay, serving Greens Creek with cheaper power and access. Reconstructing a short road from Young Bay to Hawk Inlet accesses a terminal site where another ferry can provide frequent trips across Chatham Strait to Whitestone Harbor. From Whitestone, 17 miles of rebuilt logging road lead to Hoonah. A power line following the road and ferry routes lowers the cost of power to Hoonah residents and businesses.

In the future, more logging roads can be reconstructed extending power and access from Hoonah to Tenakee Springs, then across Tenakee Inlet by ferry to logging roads that lead to Peril Strait, where another ferry crosses to roads that lead to Sitka. A ferry and underwater power cable serves Angoon.

The two Southeast Conference studies agree on extending roads and power lines from Juneau to Haines and Skagway.

In the Ketchikan and Wrangell area, it is proposed to rebuild logging roads and provide some extensions and/or ferries to connect those communities with a proposed highway up the Bradfield Canal valley to B.C. Highway 37.

Missing is a proposal to hook the Southeast Intertie at Tyee Lake with the large Canadian hydro electric plant under construction on the Iskut River. That intertie would be the same length as the one between Tyee and Swan lakes and would hook Southeast to BC Hydro and the continental power grid.

There are plans to upgrade all of the roads on Prince of Wales Island, including improved culverts to protect fish. The plan uses hundreds of miles of existing logging roads and requires a minimum of new roads.

The Forest Service planning team worked with the Southeast Conference to devise the road and ferry links and noted that the projects access 556 million board feet of timber, one-half the allowable harvest in the next 10 years.

Completing all projects will take more than 10 years. The regionwide power intertie into every community is projected for completion by 2030. The road and ferry routes must be completed sooner. The state's three oldest ferries are banned from carrying passengers after 2010.

Our summer visitors might find it hard to deal with the representatives of 29 Southeast Conference communities if they undertake actions that stop better access or cheaper power to communities already devastated by the activist-inspired Clinton administration.

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