Sealaska Bill: A Step Backward for Southeast Alaska

We were sitting at the kitchen table of a B&B on Prince of Wales Island a few years ago when the owner – a former logger – looked me straight in the eye and asked about an idea that could improve his future: “Do you think other people want to do this?”

I was traveling with a friend on a five-day tour as we rode our mountain bikes from town to town, sleeping each night in whatever cabins or B&B we could find via the Internet before leaving home. This one was in a lovely home overlooking Clarence Strait, with a big garage where we could park our bikes among the many wood carvings our host made as a side business. Looking at us, the former logger saw another business opportunity. It was the same one I had daydreamed about while pedaling through those sections of the Tongass National Forest that hadn’t been stripped bare by the clearcutting practices of the past 50 years.

Yes, I told my new friend, I think it could work -- guided bike tours among the towering trees, salmon streams , black-tailed deer and even occasional bears of Southeast Alaska’s coastal temperate rainforest.  People want to experience places like this, and Southeast Alaska is easily accessible from the Lower 48. As our evening conversation progressed, we both saw the advantages: A clean, low-impact business based on a great renewable resource – tourists – in an area with rental cabins and quaint B&Bs that were eager for growth. Many were already busy with business from fishermen who had come to a salmon forest known to have more than 5,500 salmon-producing streams.

As the scars of large-scale logging heal, the Tongass is perfectly suited for a transition to sustainable forest management, and its communities are ready to benefit from more stable and sustainable economies without the boom-and-bust cycles of industrial logging. As my friend, Sue, and I pedaled around the island that week, we were disappointed by ugly tracts of clearcut land, but awed by the beauty of the healthy sections of forest, not to mention the abundant deer, the plentiful streams steeped in tannins, and stunning vistas of coastal Alaska. Clearly, the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska and its salmon-rich waters were immensely valuable natural resources.

Unfortunately, the Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act (HR. 1408) that is before the House Natural Resources Committee, and its companion bill in the Senate (S. 730) would jeopardize this region’s future by making more than 87,000 acres of the most valuable and important forest lands available for private development, most of which would likely be slated for intensive clearcut logging without important protections for fish, wildlife and water resources as well as threaten priority conservation areas.  The bill would privatize about 5,000 acres of the most popular and valuable traditional and recreational sites in the Tongass. An additional 3,600 acres of sites that are sacred to Alaska Native Tribes would be available for development, and Sealaska Corporation could select those sites without consulting affected Tribes.

Known as the Sealaska Lands Bill, this legislation would destabilize the local economy by putting jobs at risk: Commercial fishing alone contributes $986 million annually to the local economy and provides more than 10 percent of local jobs, while the Tongass timber industry costs American taxpayers $32 million each year and provides less than 1 percent of local jobs . The bill would also undermine the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to move from a boom-and-bust, old-growth logging model to restoration-based forest management and a more diversified local economy.

Fishing, recreation and tourism are the real future of Southeast Alaska. Along with sustainable forest management, they’ll provide stable, long-term jobs indefinitely. They’ve already started doing just that. As my friend on Prince of Wales Island had already learned, there is life after boom-and-bust industrial logging, and it offers a brighter, more sustainable future.

There’s still time to save one of the last intact temperate rainforests in the world. Please ask your representatives in Washington to vote against the Sealaska Lands Bill.