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ANCHORAGE - Twice as much state timber could be cut down in Southeast Alaska this year after a push by Gov. Frank Murkowski to expand the harvest, state officials said.
The Alaska Division of Forestry plans to offer about 16 million board feet of timber, compared to 8 million last year, said Jim Eleazer, coastal regional forester.
Most of the timber will be processed by Southeast's three largest sawmills: Pacific Log & Lumber of Ketchikan, Silver Bay Logging of Wrangell and Viking Lumber in Klawock on Prince of Wales Island.
"We need to have access to timber, and we need it ... soon," said Steve Seley, owner of Pacific Log & Lumber.
The Division of Forestry will ramp up its timber offerings and will encourage the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, another large timber owner, to support local mills. Most Trust timber is shipped overseas without any processing in Alaska, something Murkowski would like to change, said spokeswoman Becky Hultberg.
Some smaller operators say Murkowski should do more to help them.
"He overlooked the fact that there are more of us desperate for a livelihood," said Ernie Eads, a Thorne Bay logger who says he can't get enough timber to run a sawmill he bought a few years ago.
With new state timber sales being steered toward his competitors, Eads said that will make it even harder for him.
Eleazer, the regional forester, said the state routinely offers sales to the highest bidder and tailors some specifically for mom and pop operations.
Seley plans to purchase 7 million board feet, roughly 280 acres, on Wrangell Island to help him get through the winter. His current inventory amounts to about 2 million board feet, enough to operate for a couple of months.
The state timber will help close the gap until more U.S. Forest Service trees become available, he said.
"Without timber, our mills are going to shut down," Seley said.
Mill owners and some Alaska politicians, including Murkowski, blame environmental lawsuits for hamstringing the U.S. Forest Service's ability to offer old-growth timber for logging from Southeast's 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.
Global timber economics, the Tongass' remoteness and federal logging restrictions have more to do with the depressed state of the Alaska industry than lawsuits, environmentalists say.
Aurah Landau, with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said it's better for the state to offer timber than the Forest Service. State timber land was largely selected for logging, while the Tongass serves multiple uses, including fishing, recreation, subsistence and habitat conservation.