My Turn: The Forest Service offers bountiful opportunities

  • By BETH PENDLETON
  • Thursday, January 14, 2016 1:01am
  • Opinion

This week, Alaska’s policy makers will turn their attention to resolving the state government’s fiscal crisis while maintaining critical services and supporting local and regional economic opportunity. With almost 22 million acres of land within the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, the Forest Service contributes to Alaska’s economic prosperity through employment wages and benefits, affordable energy, transportation and infrastructure, unique forest products and access to capital.

In 2015, the Forest Service employed over 600 permanent and 220 seasonal workers in Alaska. Employees own and rent housing, pay property taxes and purchase goods and services locally. In addition to their monetary contributions, many employees also serve on local boards and commissions, fundraise for local causes and volunteer as first responders.

In order to attract businesses and residents, communities need to offer plentiful and affordable energy. Many of Alaska’s rural villages are reliant on expensive diesel fuel for heat and electricity. Both national forests encourage renewable energy production. Currently, there are 15 permitted hydropower plants, serving over 18 communities. Forest Service professionals and funding are helping to deploy biomass energy systems that use young-growth and mill waste timber resources to heat and power small communities statewide. Renewable energy from our forests displaces tens of millions of gallons of expensive diesel fuel, as well as their resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

Numerous electrical transmission interties cross Forest Service land, connecting systems between two or more communities and serving as economic corridors — bringing broadband and other shared utilities for distance education, financial management and banking, emergency management and tele-health to connected communities.

The Forest Service provides and maintains over 600 miles of road to passenger car standards and another 1,600 miles for high-clearance vehicles.

State and Private Forestry programs provide technical, educational and financial assistance to maintain and improve the health of Alaska’s forests and related economies. The cost-share grant to the state for forestry inventory work is $4 million in 2016. Funds are also provided to state and private agencies helping many small villages convert public facilities to more economical heating methods. The National Forest Foundation, in partnership with the Forest Service, offers a community capacity-building grant program to benefit the forests and the communities that depend upon it. The program facilitates job creation and business development while advancing the transition to sustainable young-growth forest management. Since 2012, the Community Capacity and Land Stewardship grant program has awarded nearly $500,000 to community organizations.

Beyond oil and government, Alaska’s top economic drivers include minerals, seafood and marine industries and tourism. Alaska’s national forests play a large part in the revenue generated by these economic sectors. There are currently two large mines operating on Forest Service land in Southeast, producing over 176,000 ounces of gold and nearly 6 million ounces of silver last year. Hecla’s Greens Creek mine is Juneau’s largest private sector employer and tax revenue generator.

The Tongass and Chugach are salmon forests. Wild salmon spawned and reared from habitat managed by the Forest Service account for up to 40 percent of Alaska’s commercial salmon harvest, with the catch, in total, worth $414 million in ex-vessel value in 2015. Alaska’s new mariculture farms are also reliant on healthy watersheds to grow fresh oysters bursting with flavor.

Many of Alaska’s 1.9 million visitors spend a portion of their visit recreating on the Chugach and the Tongass; fishing, hunting, camping, hiking and dog sledding. The visitor industry contributes over $3.72 billion to Alaska’s economy. Our forests provide unparalleled opportunities for unique experiences — where else can you watch whales, ride dog sleds, heli-ski and board on world class mountain terrain, observe bears, view bird migrations, hunt, fish and practice timeless traditions?

With a transition from the harvest of old growth trees to the sustainable harvest of smaller diameter young-growth trees, the Forest Service will support the opportunity for developing new, innovative, value-added forest products – ripe for Southeast entrepreneurs to reestablish a thriving forest products industry.

Forest Service employees in Alaska are your family, your friends, your elders, your neighborhood volunteers. Many of our young workers are your future employees. We have deep roots in our communities. We want Alaska to prosper from our national forests, to cultivate diverse industries that thrive in a healthy, sustainable manner. We provide jobs, roads, infrastructure, energy and goods alongside breathtaking natural wonders. The Forest Service is here, in Alaska, supporting families, businesses and communities and doing its part in supporting local, regional and statewide economic prosperity.

To learn more about the Forest Service in Alaska please go to: http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/r10/home, or @AKForestService on Twitter.

• Beth Pendleton is a regional forester in Juneau.

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