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SITKA - The Tongass National Forest superintendent told Southeast leaders gathered here for an economic summit on Tuesday that he plans to increase timber sales in the forest over the next few years.
Acknowledging complaints about unprofitable Tongass timber sales and a reduced supply of commercial timber in the 17-million-acre national forest, Superin- tendent Forrest Cole blamed environmental groups' litigation.
He said Tongass officials are re-evaluating their 1997 Tongass National Forest Management Plan and he would like to offer the timber industry an increase to 350 million board feet per year and maintain a supply of 400 million board feet.
The current commercial offering for 2004 is 267 million board feet, but that has not translated into sales. Meanwhile, the "shelf supply" of timber is virtually empty, officials told the Southeast Conference, which convened on Monday in Sitka to discuss the region's economic concerns. The meeting will end Thursday morning. The Southeast Conference, composed of city and state leaders and various business organizations, deals with transportation and economic issues.
"We've made a Herculean effort ... but the volume is not there. It's going to take another year-and-a-half to get there," Cole told the 200-plus audience members Tuesday morning.
Emily Ferry, a grassroots coordinator for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, responded that Cole's proposal is "above and beyond" the 1997 timber plan.
"It's unachievable without rolling back the safeguards put in place by the plan and it sacrifices other uses of the forest," she said. "We need to find a solution that doesn't cut more than the forest can sustain."
But timber industry boosters said they want even more timber, especially if they are able to launch a fiberboard industry that would have a high demand for low-grade timber.
A series of speakers at the Southeast Conference told the audience that the most attractive new market for low-grade wood in the Tongass is fiberboard production.
McDowell Group senior consultant Jim Calvin said an annual 350 million board-foot supply of timber would support a fiberboard industry. If 200 million to 250 million board feet were available to a fiberboard plant each year, it could support 1,200 jobs. The McDowell Group is a Juneau-based economic research firm.
University of Alaska Southeast professor Allen Brackley told the audience that wood suppliers in the Lower 48 aren't in favor of preservation efforts in the Tongass. He said they "have no inhibition about using old-growth timber" and "they don't seem to be very upset about the Tongass."
Ferry of SEACC disagreed about the level of Outside interest in the Tongass.
"Over 2 million people commented on the roadless rule," she said in an interview. "That's a good indication of the public's interest in national forests - the Tongass being the crown jewel of all the forests."
Sentiment about rejuvenating the timber industry was high at the Southeast Conference's second day of meetings in Sitka.
For example, the conference's timber committee Chairman George Woodberry told the audience Tuesday morning that if any political candidates campaigning for office in Southeast Alaska "don't support the timber industry - get up and walk out now."
Also at Tuesday's meeting, Calvin of the McDowell Group presented economic figures for other industries:
Cruise ships - In 2004, an estimated 845,000 cruise ship passengers traveled through Southeast Alaska and an increase is expected in 2005. The tourists spent $330 million in the region. Cruise ship employment in the region reached 7,000, representing 14 percent of the region's employment.
Ex-vessel salmon value - The post-harvest profit for salmon fishermen in 2004 is expected to reach $65 million, the highest level since 2001.
Mine employment - If the Kensington mine is improved, employment from mining in the Juneau area could reach 485 jobs, including the workers at the Greens Creek multi-metal mine on Admiralty Island.
Employment increased 1.3 percent in Southeast Alaska from 2002 to 2003. Average wages throughout the region increased by 3 percent. The community with the biggest employment problems is Wrangell. It has been losing employment since 1994, Calvin said.