A few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service was getting ready to open up several large stands of old-growth trees here on Kupreanof Island in an attempt to sustain southeast Alaska’s beleaguered timber industry.
The target was up to 70 million board feet of timber. Much of it would be plucked from remote, roadless forests. Even getting to the trees was going to mean building 25 miles of roads at a cost of more than $6 million.
The three tiny sawmills in nearby Kake, where the unemployment rate is 80%, couldn’t hope to bid on such a massive and expensive logging operation.
What happened next marked a crucial turnaround for the Forest Service, which traditionally works mainly with large mills in Alaska and has encountered endless lawsuits by environmental groups.
The local Forest Service ranger, Chris Savage, set up meetings with Kake’s 500-some residents to ask — they say they had never been asked before — what they wanted to happen in the remaining uncut forests around their village.
Jobs, people said first. Check. A few timber sales small enough that our own mills can bid on them. Check. Stay out of roadless areas so the blacktailed deer we hunt can have a chance to flourish. Check.
The result is a new plan that will cut only 26 million board feet of timber, requiring just 1.8 miles of permanent new roads. Much of the harvest will be offered in “micro-sales” that will almost certainly go to mill owners in Kake. Community residents will be offered contracts to maintain old forest roads, repair culverts and thin newly growing forests to ready them for logging later.
Advocates say it may be one of the only ways forward for logging in southeast Alaska, which has chewed through much of its easily accessible old-growth timber.
The Forest Service last year announced that it was abandoning its long-standing approach of big old-growth timber sales in the Tongass National Forest in favor of more modest harvests in previously logged lands, which could then be cycled in perpetuity.
Allies of big timber companies, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), say the Forest Service is still falling short of delivering a reliable supply of wood. But Obama administration officials say the new consolidated approach linking timber sales and maintenance provides a way to administer federal lands that also looks at economic opportunities from fishing, recreation, biofuels and tourism.
“This project really is the first of a whole slew of projects we’re expecting to come out within the next five years. We’re real optimistic and feel it’s the way of the future,” Jay Jensen, deputy undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment, said in a telephone interview.
Lincoln Bean, vice president of the Native Tlingit tribal council in Kake, said, “We as Native people want to protect what’s left.” Kake’s population is mainly Alaska Native.
“We want to see a sustainable logging operation where we can say what’s going to be logged, and where it’s going to be logged,” he said. “We need to protect our hunting lands; we need to protect our watersheds. They always talked about jobs, but every time a logging outfit came here [before], very few if any of our people ever got hired.”
Now, Kevin Merry, who owns a small sawmill in Kake, is talking about buying the lot next door, building a roof over his mill and building cabin kits fashioned from the Tongass’ famed yellow cedar.
Jon Koefod, who co-owns a construction company, hopes to bid on contracts for ditch clearing and culvert replacement.
“Before, they would bring people from out of town on stuff like this. But now the Forest Service says they’re willing to kind of help get us started on some of this. It would help a lot, and if it goes good, we can buy more equipment and employ a few more people.”
Sarah Campen of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, who helped design the project at Kake, said the plan gained credibility when it became clear that any trees cut near the town were too remote for bigger mills to economically log them.
But the timber industry remains wary of the Forest Service’s new “transition” approach. Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Assn., said a viable volume of second-growth trees would not be ready for harvest for at least 40 years.
Tongass spokeswoman Erin Uloth said 36 million board feet were cut from the forest last year, and the Forest Service has a “pipeline” of other sales under development.
Here in Kake, many see the survival of the town at stake. Already, school enrollment has shrunk so much that the high school had to field a coed basketball team this year.
“I ask myself every morning why I even stay here,” said Michael Acevida, who had been thinking of moving but now hopes to bid on jobs from the Forest Service. “It’s got to be the fishing.”