Alaska Editorial: The roads forward

  • Sunday, March 6, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

The following editorial first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:

As Alaska looks to the future, it would be prudent to consider what made for economic success in its communities before the glut of oil revenue into state coffers.

That’s fishing, mining and timber for Ketchikan and much of Southeast. Tourism came along about the same time as the oil industry. But it, too, is integral to Southeast’s economy.

The Ketchikan City Council has been in tune with the importance of the fishing industry in terms of economic well-being here.

The city recently completed a new drive-down ramp at Bar Harbor, allowing fishermen to transfer heavy loads more easily to fishing vessels. The ramp project also included installation of a crane for even greater convenience.

But Ketchikan started out as a mining town. Miners established Ketchikan as a city. Mining continues to be a viable industry, with the precious metals and rare earth element mines on Prince of Wales Island being pursued. Private business people — and perhaps others — have put financial capital into mining prospects and expect it to be returned in multiples one day.

Meanwhile, Rep. Don Young, Alaska’s most experienced congressional member, remains faithful to the timber industry. Young has seen it rise and succeed. He also witnessed it recede largely because of shifting federal policies and red tape.

Timber as a natural resource remains in the Tongass National Forest.

It’s a resource that can and should be put to use, especially in uncertain economic times.

Congressman Young has come up with a bill, which was discussed in the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands this week, designed to put some federal forest management under states’ authority.

This isn’t only wise for Alaska; it’s the way for all forested states.

The State National Forest Management Act is an effort to “reform the federal government’s broken system of forestry management in a manner that empowers local communities, builds resilient forests and streamlines burdensome management practices,” according to Young.

“In Alaska we have a proven record of success in managing millions of acres of state parks and forests. (This act) will give states an opportunity to show they are in fact the best stewards of our lands. … This proposal works to end the constant fighting between our forestry communities and the federal government by allowing us to resolve our differences at home.”

The bill proposed by Young would allow states to acquire up to 2 million acres to manage and operate for timber production as well as other purposes. The states would be allowed to buy the land or exchange it in order to gain management access.

In Alaska this would be a means to increase the timber base available for management from 672,000 acres. The state would be more agile than the feds in providing timber sales; the state operates at 65 percent of its annual allowable cut, while the feds realize 12 percent, according to Young’s figures.

A state timber sale takes about 18 months to be planned and offered. The feds, meanwhile, take five years, largely because of the National Environmental Policies Act and lawsuits filed against the sales.

Bryce Dahlstrom, the president of Viking Timber on Prince of Wales Island, told a House committee discussing Young’s bill that the timber harvest on the Tongass has dropped lower than it was in the early 1900s. The state has its Resource and Forest Practices Act, which is a well-respected guideline for timber land management, he says.

It isn’t likely that the timber industry will regain the estimated 5,000 family-wage jobs it did before the loss of two pulp mills, five large sawmills and several smaller mills in the region. But, by increasing timber harvest — particularly during a time of increased awareness of environmental sensitivity and resulting practices — the industry could contribute more significantly to creating successful economies in Southeast communities.

In a state, such as Alaska, with an economy based on natural resources, the industries of the past are the same for the present and future. It’s a matter of management and by whom.

Alaska can best manage the land and resources here at home.

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