Ketchikan mill operator trying to switch gears

Mill wants to focus on young-growth, move into fuel-wood industry

Posted: Monday, December 21, 2009

KETCHIKAN - A local mill operator that's been shut down for a year has a new idea to restart his business, and he's asking the federal government to help out.

Steve Seley owns Pacific Log and Lumber. He has submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about changing his operation from old-growth to young-growth and moving into the fuel-wood industry.

"What you find after you shut down is while you're operating you'll do almost anything to keep it running. You'll buy a timber sale that isn't economical," Seley told the Ketchikan Daily News. "You'll do anything to keep business running because you'll know the next one will be better. Once you're shut down for 12 months you realize you can live without having that mill operating. It affects the decision-making process."

Seley's mill had trouble in 2006 when he closed for a month and considered selling the mill's equipment. The mill reopened after Seley was awarded a federal timber contract.

"We want to remain in business, but we can't do it without a predictable supply," Seley said. "We don't do ourselves any good, the community or the industry, if we can't run it profitably."

Seley said he is willing to change his operation, but doesn't want to spend a lot of time making the transition.

He plans to move into the fuel-wood industry, citing the benefits of providing rural communities with a cheap energy source. Burning wood also is considered carbon-neutral by some.

"If old growth is near and dear to the majority of taxpayers in the United States, I believe the federal government can still guarantee an amount to provide an economic supply to our communities through thinning and restoration work," Seley said.

Seley's proposal was one of 180 submitted to the USDA specific to southeastern Alaska. Jay Jensen with the USDA says proposals should get word in the spring as to which received funding.

Seley worked with Deborah Hayden, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough's economic development director, to submit a proposal to the department. That proposal seeks $2.46 million from the federal government for equipment, with Seley providing $1.63 million in setup, and chipper and load-out equipment.

Jensen said the USDA is sorting through the proposed projects.

"I love it," Jensen said of Seley's proposal. "The best example of ingenuity comes from Alaska."

Jensen said the department could propose grants or loans for viable project. The department is using the Tongass Land Management Plan as a guide as well as information gained by visiting Alaska this summer, he added.

"We went up there to listen to the communities about the economic state of affairs of communities in Alaska and how to help diversify those economies," Jensen said. "We've spent time up there listening and have received dozens of proposals and projects. We're actively sorting through all those (to determine) viable ones we can get behind and to build upon the vision the secretary (of agriculture) has for forests."

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