My Turn: With timber in decline, now's the time to diversify Southeast Alaska's economy

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

As a lifelong Southeast Alaskan, I have become increasingly concerned about a gap between the Southeast Conference's goals for our economy and the true needs of our region. The group recently announced that it is looking to hire a chief for its new Timber Industry Economic Revitalization Program. The position and the program are worrisome because they focus on increasing logging when even the State's economists say it's not our economic future. Southeast Conference's timber-focused job is evidence of the economic myths that are keeping us from adequately supporting the wide variety of jobs around the region.

The organization proposes to help the Forest Service ramp up logging on the Tongass to 360 million board feet (mmbf) per year. The recent average market demand for Tongass timber has been about a tenth of this figure. The level of logging would require shifting planning and money away from already tight Forest Service tourism planning and fish enhancement budgets. It is also unsustainable; to cut that many trees on the Tongass timber companies would be camping in our front yards.

The Southeast Conference's logging dreams are far beyond what even the Forest Service considers economical and healthy for the Tongass. The agency's current maximum production level is 267 million board feet per year. However, even this lower figure is twice the amount of Tongass wood that the Forest Service's own economists told the agency the world market would want. The economists were ignored or misinterpreted, and the trees that are cut today in Southeast Alaska speak to the influence of big industry over the government more than they do the actual demand for timber.

It's time to wake up and smell the cedar. Tongass logging should reflect reality, not politics or special interests. The world has changed a lot in the last decade and, while the timber industry isn't dead, it will never be the same. We're in an increasingly tough market dominated by countries like Russia that can cut more trees and transport them to big consumers like Japan more cheaply than we can. The result: Logging our rainforest has become a big, fat money-loser. Things are so bad that in the last few years, more than half the timber contracts offered on the Tongass received only one bid, while close to a third had no bidders at all.

Check out this month's Alaska Economic Trends report (http://www.labor.state.ak.us/trends/dec03.pdf). It lays out how the Tongass timber industry is in a state of decline primarily because of market forces. The state's economists found that even if markets for Tongass timber revive, Alaskan wood products manufacturing is not expected to create a demand for a substantial increase in logging. It will instead focus on more profitable use of current logging levels. Though timber jobs are important and we all want good jobs for Alaskans, focusing on increasing logging will not help our economy.

Southeast Alaska's economy can be revitalized, but not the way the Southeast Conference wants to do it. As far as timber goes, we can't compete on a large scale and there is no point in deceiving ourselves that we can. However, we can sustain and develop small, family-owned, high value-added timber manufacturing businesses instead of letting big corporations export unprocessed logs overseas at little profit to Alaskans.

It's also key to remember that the timber industry provides less than 1 percent of the jobs in Southeast. Instead of pouring all their resources into logging, the Forest Service and public organizations like the Southeast Conference should be investing in the region's big money-makers: commercial fishing and tourism.

To continue hoping that the Tongass timber industry will suddenly blaze up into its former might is to live in the past. Southeast Alaska needs to concentrate on making wise investments for the future.

•Mike Sallee of Ketchikan is a commercial fisherman, harvest diver and owner/operator of Mobile Dimension sawmill.



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