Sealaska works to keep timber its bright spot
While it hasn’t been the best of years for Sealaska Corp., the Native regional corporation for Southeast Alaska based in Juneau, one thing is going exceedingly well: timber.
Sealaska’s 220 million acres of commercial timber lands in Southeast have become a natural resource "Permanent Fund" for Sealaska, earning steady revenues.
"If we manage this right, it’s a sustainable resource," said Rick Harris, the corporation’s senior vice president for natural resources. "We can continue harvesting at our present rate indefinitely."
Last year Sealaska Timber Corp., a subsidiary, contributed $80 million in gross revenues to the parent corporation and other Native corporations, since 70 percent of the net resource revenues must be shared under terms of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. "We have a substantial sharing obligation to other regional corporations. Every Alaska Native benefits from our timber harvesting in Southeast Alaska," Harris said.
Seedlings are planted near Klawock as part of Sealaska’s extensive tree replanting program.
Managing it right, however, means backing up the forest’s natural regeneration with a program of replanting native Sitka spruce seedlings in selected places. Southeast Alaska’s moist climate allows nature to take care of itself in most logged areas, but Sealaska’s reforestation program provides a boost in some places. About 150,000 seedlings are being planted this year on 1,000 acres of logged land, Harris said.
Sealaska maintains its own seed bank from native trees, collecting seed cones from several regions because of potential genetic adaptation to local conditions.
Southeast’s forests can regenerate themselves. When areas are harvested, young seedlings are usually left in the overburden.
That’s not true in all forest states, Harris said. In Maine, for example, the forest industry must be much more aggressive in reforestation.
Sealaska began replanting in 1982 and has been working on reforestation with scientists from Oregon State University for 15 years. In some places, replanted trees are now 50 feet tall and six to eight inches thick, Harris said.
As replanted forests grow, the corporation also thins them so that excessive shade doesn’t crowd out vegetation on the forest floor, which is important in maintaining habitat for wildlife.
"If you get too much shade you limit the variety of other plants that can grow. We work carefully to enhance the undergrowth," Harris said. "We do these things for economic as well as social reasons. We’re enhancing the value of our assets as well as benefiting wildlife."
That’s important, too, in retaining support in communities near Sealaska’s harvest areas. The corporation works closely with U.S. Forest Service scientists in Juneau to develop computer models predicting the outcomes from timber harvest and the planting and thinning that is part of forest management, Harris said.
In this way, strategies are developed to restore and maintain deer habitat. "Everyone uses our logging roads for hunting. The deer are abundant, and hunting success is quite high," he said.
The corporation likewise works on maintaining good forest habitat for salmon spawning in a program with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Alaska Forest Association and other Native-owned forest companies like Koncor Forest Products and Chugach Alaska Inc., a Southcentral regional corporation with timber resources.
Sealaska’s economic importance to the Southeast region is also quite high, and the corporation is keen on employment and training for shareholders and other local residents.
"We want local people involved in our operations, because that creates a sustainable economy for our communities," Harris said.
Maintaining a sustainable resource has also turned out to be a key marketing advantage, and it has helped Sealaska maintain sales to its key customers in Asia, even through the recent economic downturn in the region.
"We’re in a tough, competitive timber market, but we’re doing quite well given the circumstances," Harris said.
While timber demand in places like Japan has declined, so has supply on the market for the types of timber Sealaska sells. Harris thinks the market has now reached stability.
What gives Sealaska an edge over competitors are the dependability of its timber supply, its ability to offer a mix of several species of timber, long-established relations with customers and a reputation for quality, Harris said.