Forest Service wants to help towns thrive
That was the message Steve Brink, acting regional forester for the Alaska region, delivered to the Resource Development Council in Anchorage Nov. 15.
The new regional forester, Denny Bschor, will take over in January, after which Brink will become deputy regional forester, he said. The new team, appointed by the Bush administration, will work to restore trust with local communities and the timber industry after eight years of Clinton administration policies, Brink said.
"One of our priorities will be healthy communities. We have 33 communities in Southeast that are approaching collapse," he said, after a sharp drop in high-paying timber jobs over the last five to 10 years.
Timber harvesting in Southeast is heavily dependent on Forest Service policies in the Tongass, which covers 90 percent of forested lands in the region.
Brink said an "economic stimulus" proposal has already been submitted to the Alaska congressional delegation, proposing $65 million in new projects to revitalize activity in both the Tongass and Chugach national forests. The Chugach stretches from the Kenai Peninsula to Prince William Sound.
Among projects in the package is work on fish passage projects on streams, log transfer facilities, money for thinning 80,000 acres of second-growth timber to enhance growth, and a barge loading dock at Ward Cove, near Ketchikan.
In the Chugach National Forest, Brink hopes to get money for clearing beetle-damaged timber, a top priority of the Kenai Borough because of the fire danger. Some of this wood will have economic value, Brink told the RDC.
Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens told the Forest Service he hopes to get at least $50 million more funding through additions to spending bills this winter, Brink said.
Another priority for the Forest Service is securing a change in federal policy so that money from federal gasoline taxes can be spent on road maintenance and improvement on roads in national forests.
These are essentially public highways and important to communities in places like Prince of Wales Island in Southeast, Brink said. The National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies now receive shares of federal gas tax funds, but the Forest Service does not.
If this policy change is made, it will bring an additional $40 million per year to the Forest Service’s roads budget, reducing pressure on the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to maintain these roads, Brink said.