Sealaska to reduce logging by 25 percent

Total economic loss from timber cutbacks may reach $22.5 million

Posted: Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Sealaska Corp. announced Monday that its shareholders and employees face a serious economic loss because the corporation's timber resources are much smaller than previously thought.

Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, cannot maintain its current rate of timber harvest in Southeast Alaska, said Chris McNeil, the corporation's president and chief executive officer, speaking at a two-day Southeast Alaska Native summit in Juneau on Monday morning.

Sealaska estimates the total economic loss from logging reductions will approach $22.5 million. The corporation plans to reduce its timber harvest by 25 percent in 2006 and may reduce the harvest by 50 percent in future years.

The loss in timber revenue will be felt strongly on Prince of Wales Island, the nexus of Sealaska's timber operations. But broader effects will include reductions in employment, Sealaska income and revenue sharing with other Native corporations, McNeil said.

"It impacts the region," he said.

The corporation plans to petition the federal government to quickly grant Sealaska the remaining 64,000 acres it is entitled to under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, he said.

Sealaska also plans to take a cue from the salmon industry and work on building a sustainable name brand for its timber, McNeil said.

But the corporation has an even more ambitious objective: It wants to consolidate the Southeast Alaska timber supply by taking over management of the Tongass National Forest's timber program as a private trust to be led by Sealaska.

McNeil said Sealaska, as a steward of the federal timber land, could generate more jobs and income for local mills and for Sealaska's round log export program.

Federal officials declined to comment about the latter proposal on Monday night.

The idea disturbed Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, who attended the summit.

"The timber model that the Native corporations are using isn't sustainable ... it's liquidating an asset," Heath said.

To hand over Tongass timber management to private owners would be like "driving the forest off a cliff," Heath said.

Even if federal officials quickly act on the least controversial of Sealaska's numerous proposals - granting it its final entitlements in Southeast Alaska - the corporation would still need to reduce its harvest because it is running out of mature timber, McNeil said.

Among other proposals to bump up its timber supply, Sealaska plans to petition federal officials to provide it with more valuable timber land than it is currently entitled to with the ANCSA allotments surrounding nine Native communities in Southeast Alaska, he said.

The Forest Service can't just change the ANCSA boundaries, said Scott Fitzwilliams, recreation, lands and mineral staff officer for the Tongass National Forest. "We don't have the authority," he said.

McNeil agreed that Sealaska's proposals would require congressional action.

Until about six months ago, Sealaska erroneously believed it owned 3 billion board feet of timber.

But a recent appraisal conducted on its land shows that Sealaska actually owns 1.5 billion board feet. Only 500,000 million board feet is actually marketable, McNeil said Monday.

The findings from the timber analysis - the first detailed timber appraisal on the land since the 1970s - have been disseminated at shareholder meetings, McNeil said.

The logging contractors that work with Sealaska are also aware of the problem, due to their contract negotiations with Sealaska for the coming year, McNeil said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com



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