by Hunter McIntosh
President, The Boat Company
The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would significantly increase timber production in the Tongass National Forest under the false assumption that it’s vital for Alaska’s economy. H.R. 3650 goes against the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) that was enacted by Congress in response to public and scientific concern over the massive and heavily subsidized timber production in National Forests. The NFMA ensured timber production would not be the “sole objective” of the Forest Service and would instead allow for the protection of other resources, such as fish and wildlife habitats. This is important because Congress also recognized the importance of wildlife resources to rural Alaskans who subsist on them as a way of life.
H.R. 3650 is now threatening to undo NFMA and elevate timber production above all other uses of our National Forests. In southeast Alaska in particular, this bill would financially benefit a few timber companies in a marginal industry that exports much of their product out of state and overseas with at least half of a workforce not located in Alaska. It is clear these companies do not contribute to the local economy or job market in a meaningful way.
Alaskan communities have shed their dependence on federally funded timber programs and in their place, the economy has transitioned toward fisheries, tourism and maritime service sectors.
This marginal timber industry undermines the region’s major economic sectors – fishing and tourism. There are roughly 140 outfitter/guide businesses operating in southeast Alaska that enable well over half a million Americans annually to experience hunting, fishing, hiking, cruising, wildlife viewing and other recreational opportunities on National Forest system lands in southeast Alaska. These businesses are a significant component of the visitor industry in southeast Alaska, which provides nearly a quarter of all private sector jobs in the region.
Timber decline due to lack of demand, not supply
Decreasing market demand, rather than a lack of supply, has caused the regional timber industry’s decline. H.R. 3650 mistakenly assumes that increasing timber supply will benefit the economy. Its basic premise – that the only large timber operator in the region, Viking Lumber Company, is failing due to a supply problem – is wrong. The decline of the southeast Alaska timber industry is a result of three things: past logging practices that removed the highest value timber, long-term market demand declines, and prohibitive operating costs. Alaskan communities have shed their dependence on federally funded timber programs and in their place, the economy has transitioned toward fisheries, tourism and maritime service sectors. This has resulted in jobs and population growth as well as wage increases. Despite this, H.R. 3650 continues to move forward with the flawed assumption that southeast Alaska timber operators will help the local economy.
According to the Forest Service, timber removals in southeast Alaska overall (federal and non-federal) at best provide 1% of total regional employment with wages amounting to less than 1% of total employment related earnings in the region. The significance of these jobs relative to the overall economy is even smaller because employment data do not include the thousands of self-employed commercial fishermen. The number of actual timber workers is so small that reports by the Alaska Department of Labor lump logging jobs into other natural resource-based job categories, such as fishing, mining and agriculture. 2015 Alaska Department of Labor data also indicate that nearly half of the timber related jobs in southeast Alaska are held by non-residents. H.R. 3650 is not a local jobs bill in any meaningful way.
Over half a million Americans annually experience hunting, fishing, hiking, cruising, wildlife viewing and more on National Forest system lands in southeast Alaska.
Fishing and tourism fuel the economy
Tourism growth associated with wildlife and intact forest values are more important to Alaska’s economy. According to a 2014 Alaska Department of Fish and Game economic study, in 2011, wildlife hunting and viewing alone generated 2,463 jobs in southeast Alaska, $138 million in labor income and $360 million in total economic output. The National Park Service reports that it returns $10 in direct visitor spending for every $1 invested. Alaska ranks third in the nation in visitor related spending and job support, with visitors to national parks spending $1.06 billion and supporting 16,181 jobs. The Park Service program supports 400 private businesses. According to a 2015 study by an Alaska consulting firm, The McDowell Group, overall, the visitor industry impact in southeast Alaska is massive and dwarfs the timber industry by an order of magnitude, with average visitor industry spending in excess of $1 billion per year, providing well over 10,000 jobs, with labor income impacts reaching $400 million. The other major private sector employer, commercial fishing, provides equivalent levels of economic outputs. Lands managed by the Forest Service provide slightly more than half of southeast Alaska’s salmon catch.
The timber industry costs money to support
Against this backdrop, it is important to note that publicly funded timber sale programs are expensive. During testimony at the February 25 hearing on this bill, Viking Lumber’s Bryce Dahlstrom noted that federal timber sales result in taxpayer costs. Mr. Dahlstrom’s comment was modest. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Forest Service would spend more than a hundred million dollars to provide Dahlstrom with roughly 150 million board feet of timber. Government receipts would be an estimated two and a half million dollars – a huge public loss – even without considering the economic losses to fisheries and tourism.
We’re working to protect Alaska’s land and support its true economy
The Boat Company has requested that the House Committee carefully consider the cost of imposing an expensive federal timber program on states with far more restrictive budgets, and remember that Congress imposed multiple use requirements on public lands not just for conservation, but also for business. The Boat Company, other tour operators, and the commercial fishing industry in southeast Alaska generate tremendous economic value from public lands – a value that H.R. 3650 would eliminate. Currently, this bill is with the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands and we have submitted our comments and recommendation for no further progress on this bill. We will continue to fight for the preservation of multiple use of our National Forests and support Alaska’s growing fishing and tourism economy and job growth in every way possible and provide updates on our website and through our social media channels.