My Turn: Alaska’s pulp mills and the rest of the story

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, July 15, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

When Southeast Alaska’s two pulp mills closed in the 1990s, Alaska’s congressional delegation blamed environmentalists, the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) and the Clinton Administration for destroying an industry that had been the region’s largest private employer. And now that political fiction has peddled its way into the new Andrew P. Kashevaroff State Library, Archives and Museum.

I toured the new museum for the first time last week. It’s a magnificent building housing Alaska’s arts and cultural treasures. And it was designed to be an honest resting place for the state’s often tumultuous history.

But at the Tongass National Forest exhibit I found this troubling description of the mill closings:

“Large-scale logging began in 1951, when the U.S. Forest Service signed 50-year timber contracts with large pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka. After decades of steady operation, the mills became controversial. Environmentalists cited extensive clear-cut logging of old growth trees, slash piles abandoned at logging facilities, silt build-up in salmon streams, water pollution near pulp mills, and government subsidies for the timber industry. … Congress addressed some of these issues in the 1989 Tongass Timber Reform Act, and President Bill Clinton canceled the pulp mill contracts. The pulp industry died and the big mills were demolished.”

A similar story is told at the history and cultural studies site of the Alaska Humanities Forum. The last paragraph on its page titled “The Environmental Wars Continue” states, “For Alaskans committed to development, the Tongass Timber Reform Act was a defeat. Passage of the act probably speeded up the closure of the mills.”

I’m not disputing that environmental groups fought logging on the Tongass to the point of exhaustion. Nor the fact that in July 1993, the Alaska Pulp Corp. (APC) closed its Sitka mill. And after that the Clinton Administration did terminate their contact. But the impact the TTRA had on the industry’s demise is fiction.

The TTRA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. It had overwhelming support in Congress, with the final version of the bill actually passing the Senate 99-0.

The Act protected an additional million acres of old growth forests. It directed the Forest Service to unilaterally modify the timber supply contracts with the mills. As instructed by Congress, they removed the minimum annual harvest mandated by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. And they had to ensure that price and profitability of timber sold under the long-term contract were comparable to competitively bid timber sales.

But the “TTRA was not a substantial factor ­— indeed, no factor at all — in the closure of the pulp mill and the resulting termination of the contract.” That was the conclusion of Lawrence M. Baskir, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge who presided over the lawsuit APC filed a year after the mill was closed.

APC had sought over a billion dollars in damages for the government’s unilateral implementation of the TTRA and termination of the contract. They got nothing. In his January 2004 decision, Baskir determined that the “declining pulp market and associated economic factors drove virtually every action taken by APC up to and including the decision to shut down its pulp mill.”

Hard core defenders of the timber industry will point out that Baskir was a Clinton appointee and thereby rendered a biased decision. But in 2001 they were jubilant after his summary judgement against the government.

“This ruling is another nail in the government’s coffin,” said then-Sen. Frank Murkowski. “I argued in 1990 it was wrong for the government to unilaterally change the terms of the long-term contracts for Alaska’s two pulp mills. This decision simply proves I was right.”

Murkowski was our governor when Baskir ruled APC wasn’t entitled to any monetary damages. He didn’t protest then because government’s case didn’t matter. Referring to records from internal meetings, some before the TTRA was even signed, Baskir wrote “It was the statements of APC’s own officers that made the case so compelling.”

Baskir’s decision is what the late Paul Harvey would call the rest of the story. It doesn’t have the theatrical flair of a John Grisham novel, but it’s still a fascinating depiction of how APC’s “public relation justification for the mill’s closing” was a front for their attempt to bilk a billion dollars from American taxpayers.

Don’t trust my choice of excerpts from his 59-page decision though. You can download and read it yourself at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data2/circs/fedclaim/2004/95153cp.pdf.

I contacted the state’s Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums about the display’s inaccuracy. They haven’t responded to me yet. But they might consider showing its visitors that Alaskans prefer truthful history over scapegoating. All they need to do is replace most of the section I quoted with this: “After decades of steady operation, the worldwide market for the pulp they produced had fallen dramatically and the mills closed.” End of story.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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