My Turn: A welcome new direction on the Tongass

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010

As a custom builder in Sitka, I'd like to run my business using only local woods that come from the Tongass. Unfortunately, it's an impractical goal right now. The easiest way for me to get wood is to buy from Sitka's local lumber yard, which stocks only wood from the Lower 48 or Canada. I scratch my head and wonder why the local yard can not stock wood right from my backyard?

I will soon start work on a house that's built almost entirely with Tongass wood. It required me to make special arrangements months in advance with a mom-and-pop mill down in Wrangell. It's not easy to plan months before a project even starts, however both my client and I are committed to using local wood. It's good for the local economy and it can be done in a way that doesn't require wholesale clearcutting of old-growth, like we had when the region's two pulp mills were running full bore.

Those logging boom times are long gone, and they inflicted a lot of environmental damage that needs to be repaired. By fixing that damage, and shifting to a second-growth timber supply, the Tongass can support local businesses like mine while ensuring that the wild and wonderful places that make the Tongass special are here for all future generations.

The U.S. Forest Service agrees. In May, the feds announced they would begin a transition away from logging in old-growth and roadless areas. Instead, they will concentrate on cutting timber from second-growth areas and restoring damage inflicted by decades of clearcutting from the pulp mill era.

I'm really encouraged to see the Forest Service moving in this direction with the Tongass. To make this transition succeed, though, will require more than just good intentions on the agency's part.

An industry that can do this new kind of work and create local jobs won't magically spring up overnight. It will take a steady, predictable stream of projects, and some small but significant investments to help local businesses retool and expand their operations.

For example, in Sitka, we are ready to do a demonstration project that will build a preschool using second-growth wood from the Tongass. Some parts of the forest that were logged long ago, in the early-to-mid 1900s, could produce the necessary wood.

We would like the Forest Service to help cover the cost of retooling the mills to make the transition from old growth to second growth. And we are also seeking some help to finance construction of the preschool. The funding could come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development office, in partnership with the Forest Service to help businesses adapt to the new opportunities in the Tongass. Our project will lay the groundwork for building a supply chain for second-growth wood in the region.

Looking farther ahead, if we are going to have a local wood products industry in Southeast Alaska, we really need an industrial-sized kiln that can dry the fresh-cut lumber before it's sold in our region. I agree with the Alaska Forest Association's call for government investment to help us get this economically important facility.

As local mills handle Tongass wood, they produce a lot of sawdust and scraps, which are a potentially valuable fuel source. Wood fuel could displace fuel oil that has to be barged up from Seattle at great expense to our communities. Sealaska in Juneau and Alaska's Coast Guard stations are installing wood boilers. The city of Craig has installed a large wood boiler for its school and pool. This is another great, economically sustainable opportunity for our region to use our own wood products.

I'm nearing retirement and have been lucky enough to make a good living in a community I love. I want the same for my son and my grandkids. Those in my generation and proceeding generations were not good stewards of all the resources of the Tongass. If the Forest Service follows through with this new, more sustainable management, we'll leave the Tongass in better shape for my grandkids and generations to come.

• LaPerriere is a homebuilder in Sitka and serves on the board of directors of the Sitka Conservation Society.

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