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An Alaskan logger branches out

After listening to environmentalists and with help from the Obama administration, one timber firm blazes a trail for the industry's future.

August 08, 2009

There's no future in old growth. Lifelong timber man Steve Seley accepts that. In fact, as the owner of Pacific Log & Lumber, based in Ketchikan, Alaska, he is at the forefront of creating a new business model for the timber industry.

Most environmentalists would gape in surprise at one of Seley's newest ventures in the Tongass National Forest. Under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, he will start a pilot project of habitat restoration that melds the interests of timber and nature.

As the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world, the Tongass has iconic status within Washington's environmental lobby, which watches its 16.8 million acres like a sharp-shinned hawk and battled throughout the Bush administration to keep new logging roads from encroaching on protected swaths of spruce and hemlock trees. In a rare moment of industrial-environmental serendipity, Seley devised his moneymaking idea after listening to the complaints of Alaska conservationists in a round-table discussion about the logging of virgin forest. The second-growth forests that replace the oldest trees after they're cut down don't provide habitat for animals, they claimed.

They were right. Seley saw it for himself, walking in an area near the beach where some of the earliest logging took place. The trees grew so close that they cut off sunlight to the forest floor. Without sun, huckleberry and other low plants foraged by Sitka deer couldn't grow. Also, the crowded trees weren't maturing to the size of their more majestic forebears.

The new logging contract will pay Seley to selectively thin a patch of this forest. He also will get to keep the lumber from the trees he harvests. Wood with no commercial value will be chipped into mulch on a barge off the beach and scattered on the forest floor.

Seley, who grew up in a tiny town in the area, is a resourceful entrepreneur with a knack for politics and an understanding of the big economic picture. He's also a small-business owner who clings to an old-fashioned commitment to keeping his 80 workers employed. He foresees a day when at least half of his company's work will be in habitat restoration or building tourism-related structures, such as bridges or cabins, in the forest. The logging operation will shrink and sustainably mill only second-growth trees. Instead of shipping the raw wood to Oregon and Washington as it does now, Pacific Log & Lumber will produce finished products, such as doors, and sell within Alaska, saving on shipping costs and transforming some logging jobs into manufacturing work.

His resourceful plan has won the admiration of the Wilderness Society and Nature Conservancy. But the work can't begin until the Forest Service declares the Tongass' second-growth stands ready for harvest. So Seley's sawmill has been closed all year, costing him $1.8 million, he says. His new ventures don't yet bring in the kind of money it would take to keep the company going. He has managed to find work for his employees here and there -- repairing anchor chains for offshore barges, for example. But in order to buy new equipment and stay in business while he retools for the future, he wants to continue logging old growth for the next decade.

Enter the Obama administration and the decision last month by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to permit a timber sale to Pacific Log & Lumber in what had previously been declared a "roadless" area of the Tongass. Seley is allowed to clear-cut 381 acres of old-growth forest; in addition, the Forest Service will build a four-mile gravel road to give him access. Many environmentalists saw Obama as reneging on his campaign support for protecting roadless areas and declared that he was allowing the wealthy timber industry to destroy the last great forest. They were not soothed by Vilsack's defense that the sale would protect jobs.

Neither side has it right. The timber industry in southeast Alaska has been fading for years because of global competition; only three companies remain with the capability of logging significant amounts of old-growth forest. And while clear-cutting is more environmentally damaging than selective cutting, 381 acres is barely a dot in a forest of nearly 17 million acres.

At the same time, Vilsack's decision protects neither jobs nor wilderness; worse, it wastes federal funds that could be used more effectively. The Forest Service is selling the timber rights for $138,000, but spending about $900,000 to build the road to that timber, a heavy subsidy for one small company in a faltering industry. And for all that, the lumber will keep Seley's mill going for only four months -- barely worth the time it takes to get the mill up and running to capacity, he says. What he needs is a predictable source of work to see his company through the next 10 years to its new incarnation.

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