Southeast Conference, a voice for the region

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

The community of Haines did an outstanding job of hosting the 46th annual meeting of Southeast Conference this past week and showcasing their magnificent town. Southeast Conference was formed in 1957 by a group of business and government leaders from throughout Southeast Alaska to address the need for a ferry transportation system.

In his keynote address on the opening day of the three-day conference, Jim Clark, the governor's chief of staff, noted that Southeast Conference is unique in Alaska as a powerful consolidated voice of regional communities working to advance collective interests.

Following the trend set in Craig last year, the meeting saw record attendance with almost 300 registrants taking up most of the lodging space in town and providing the community with a good economic boost.

Each year the agenda for the meeting is jam-packed with presentations on economic development, transportation, utility infrastructure, forest and land use studies, health care, mining, tourism, commercial fishing, and a variety of governmental topics.

A lot has happened in the past year. A new administration hit the ground running late last fall embarking on an ambitious mission to reform state government and make it more fiscally responsible. Sweeping changes are taking place in a number of key areas of importance to the region, most importantly in transportation and resource development.

Even though the picture remains bleak for economically depressed communities such as Craig, Wrangell, Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Angoon and Kake, there are hopeful signs of recovery.

The out-migration of Craig's population seems to be slowing. Out of the Native communities, only Hoonah has been successful in diversifying its economic base in order to sustain its population and provide opportunity for the future.

Wrangell has suffered a significant loss of jobs and population, but is building a new civic center; a community project symbolic of the enduring pride and can-do spirit of Southeast Alaska.

This project - like the beautiful new Haines library, the Noyes Pavilion at the University of Alaska Southeast, the Point Retreat Lighthouse restoration and the new SEARHC clinic in Haines - have all been financed in part by donations from the ever-growing Rasmuson Foundation, a nonprofit benefactor founded by E.A. Rasmuson, a pioneer Skagway banker.

The region has lost a great deal of its timber industry infrastructure. However, despite the recent loss of Silver Bay Logging in Wrangell, a slow but steady resurgence is taking place. Stability in the timber supply will restore the confidence necessary to enable a reinvestment in small-scale timber operations.

Further discussion of timber centered on the development of value-added and high-grade timber products. A number of kilns are being established in the region, which will add more jobs and create opportunity for a greater variety of Southeast Alaska timber products.

Strategies for Southeast Alaska's commercial fisheries also were explored. Momentum is building for the creation of value-added products; national and global marketing efforts are generating more excitement for Alaska seafood; and significant progress is being made toward sustainability not only of our fisheries but of jobs derived from this important industry.

Encouraging trends in global mineral values have fueled investment in more exploration and development of mining projects in mineral-rich Southeast Alaska. Permitting for the Kensington project north of Juneau is in the final stages, and construction is expected to begin in the first half of 2004.

The Woewodski Island Project 12 miles south of Petersburg is drawing significant investment based on positive signs from exploration indicating that Greens Creek-like ore bodies may exist there.

The Palmer discovery 33 miles up the road from Haines near the Canadian border also promises to evolve into a productive mine project that would provide high-paying jobs for communities in the upper Lynn Canal. This discovery was made in 1969 by prospector Merrill Palmer.

Gov. Murkowski and his chief of staff spoke of the need to develop an efficient transportation system and a clean hydropower-driven electric network as the building blocks vitally important to the region's economic viability.

The governor stressed that sustainability of the environment, natural resources, tourism and our way of life will not be sacrificed in the pursuit of economic development.

The status of the Southeast Alaska Intertie was thoroughly outlined in a report delivered by John Heberling of D. Hittle and Associates.

As with the past 45 meetings, regional transportation issues dominated much of the dialogue.

Tom Briggs, deputy commissioner for the Department of Transportation, Gary Paxton, DOT''s Southeast region director, and Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System articulated the sweeping changes planned for the ferry system and surface arteries.

After a decade of gridlock and failure to develop a cohesive long-range vision for regional transportation, a coherent plan for the future is taking shape.

One of the best ideas arising out of last year's conference was the concept of depoliticizing the fate of the AMHS by establishing a separate board to advise and make recommendations to the Department of Transportation on matters related to the future of the ferry system.

One of Gov. Murkowski's first executive directives was the establishment of the Alaska Marine Transportation Advisory Board (MTAP). MTAP began a two-day meeting on-board the ferry Matanuska as it departed Haines. The meeting concluded yesterday in Ketchikan and will be reported on in the Empire.

The decline of Southeast Alaska's proportionate voice in the Legislature can only be offset through the strong voice of the region's coalition of communities, Southeast Conference. Southeast Conference has grown in influence over the past 46 years because it is the one forum where the disparate interests of communities, cultures, political subdivisions, and industries of Southeast Alaska can work together for the common good of the region as a whole.

Don Smith


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