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By CATHY BOLLING
Island Post Staff Writer
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke attended the Feb. 24 meeting of the Prince of Wales Landscape Assessment Team at the Klawock Vocational and Technical Education Center.
The group convened for the first time since submitting its list of local recommendations to the Forest Service in June. That document contained 29 project recommendations specific to the Prince of Wales District for the next 10 to 15 years, including recreation, fish habitat, education and timber, communications, personal use, subsistence, wildlife and tourism.
During the Feb. 24 gathering, Craig-Klawock District Ranger Matt Anderson told the group to expect nearly all of its recommendations to be included in the Forest Service’s draft environmental impact statement being released in April.
This was the second day of Murkowski and Tooke’s trip to southern Southeast Alaska, having spent the prior day in Ketchikan listening to a different set of Tongass stakeholders. While on Prince of Wales, they also visited the Viking Lumber Mill in Klawock, toured a Sealaska young-growth stand, and a portion of the Big Thorne Timber sale area, once the subject of litigation.
The meeting included nearly 30 participants, about half of whom were POWLAT members. Murkowski brought staff from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, while Tooke brought staff from his Washington, D.C., office, as well as Regional Forester Beth Pendleton, Tongass Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart, and others.
POWLAT member Tyra Huestis and her husband, Whale Pass Vice Mayor Mike Huestis, drove in for the meeting on a snowy Saturday morning. Mike Huestis thanked Murkowski and Tooke for making the effort to visit the island.
“Thank you for coming and hearing us. We’re a rare species of people who live here,” Mike Huestis said. “We appreciate everything you do for us, on the Forest Service side, on the legislative side, to make our life possible here.”
POWLAT Chair Jon Bolling outlined the group’s history and members shared their experience. Many spoke about the challenging, lengthy, yet worthwhile process as they met monthly between March 2016 and May 2017.
Many also expressed appreciation to the Forest Service for asking for local input, and local Forest Service staff for providing the information needed to move through discussions.
“I applaud the Forest Service for the interest they showed in getting an island perspective of what we need here, what’s going to move us forward, and find some balance,” said Michael Kampnich of Craig.
Despite representing diverse interests — timber, fishing, communities, tribes, visitors, education, conservation — many said the collaborative approach worked well.
That’s because this is home.
“I live here. I am a resident here, I care about this place,” said Bob Girt, who works for Sealaska Timber and is also a local church pastor. “And I believe that everyone here who was a part of POWLAT cares about this place.”
Murkowski agreed that conversations about the Tongass are often difficult because people feel so passionately about it.
It is important that the group’s hard work be given its due consideration, said Klawock Mayor and Klawock Cooperative Association Tribal Administrator Leonard Armour.
“I hope that this immense effort by the island gets the respect it deserves,” he said. “If there’s anything this current political atmosphere has taught us is that it’s really easy to be on one side or the other. If someone challenges your opinion, it’s easy to shut them down. We really fought that.”
Leonard was further concerned that others “on one side or the other of the big topics we discussed might have more opportunity to influence the outcome of some of the decisions that we worked really hard to find a fair answer for.”
Kampnich, a 34-year POW resident, has worked in logging, is the former Craig harbormaster and now fishes commercially. He is the island representative for The Nature Conservancy. He cautioned against the simplistic, “one side or the other” view, especially with timber. The view that more timber access is the solution is just as simplistic as that of conservation groups that want to shut the industry down completely. On Prince of Wales, timber remains a big part of the economy, supporting a lot of people, including schools.
Collaboration is the way forward, he said.
Educator Karen Cleary concurred in her comments. Trees, fish and watersheds are important, but people have to have jobs, she said.
“That particular piece was well-balanced in our process,” she said.
Lifelong resident Millie Schoonover represented the Craig Tribal Association and Shaan Seet Native Corp. Although she is not one to spend a lot of time in the woods, the process made her look at “the big picture,” she said.
“I understand both sides of the (logging) issue. I now understand the importance of watersheds and how they impact the species on our island.”
Thorne Bay City Administrator Wayne Benner thanked the Forest Service for its effort to look at the broad picture, including community sustainability.
Tooke’s last trip to Prince of Wales was 10 years ago, and this was his first trip as agency chief. He hopes that the Forest Service will work to meet the needs heard on this trip — from citizens and employees — including economic and social well-being of the people as well as ecological sustainability.
“I assure you (your recommendations) are being taken seriously,” he said.
Tooke also thanked his staff for taking “a step back and creating the environment” for people to come together and discuss issues of importance.
Anderson said the Forest Service included every POWLAT recommendation that it had the “authority” to do in the draft EIS coming out in April. The only projects dropped were a couple restoration projects on private land.
“You’ll see (the EIS) and it should look extremely familiar, almost verbatim to what you provided,” he said.
“I don’t know that all the Forest Service staff could have put together that comprehensive a list of projects. It mirrors what we hear throughout the island, what the public wants,” Anderson said. “I think you did a fantastic job. The ball is in our court right now. If at some point it doesn’t mirror what your interest and intent was, we can reconvene and help steer it back. That’s our intent.”
When Murkowski asked members to sum up the biggest “takeaways” from the collaborative process, they responded “balance, cooperation, communication.”
“What radical concepts!” she exclaimed.
Murkowski said she prefers using legislative tools, collaboration, shared resources and partnerships, rather than political muscle, to effect change.
“I have actually a very bad reputation in Congress for being one of those bipartisan people who likes to sit around the table and get input from all sides,” she said. “That’s the part of me that I like the best, is that I do want to encourage the good ideas of so many.”
POWLAT’s most diverse and lengthy discussion was on timber, particularly harvest amounts and the Tongass transition from old to young growth, said Tyra Huestis.
Recreation was the second most discussed.
Murkowski asked about accessibility. In Whale Pass, which has about 100 wintertime residents, four families support themselves by selling firewood to schools that operate wood-fired boilers. Access is huge, said Huestis.
Benner said the Forest Service has worked cooperatively with the Prince of Wales Community Advisory Council on road access recommendations. With Thorne Bay’s many small mills, without timber and the ability to get to it, the community would “shut down,” he said.
Pat Tierney of Thorne Bay said road accessibility is extremely important for older people who can’t walk to subsistence areas.
Armour said the tribes have the necessary maintenance equipment and are willing to work with the Forest Service on keeping roads accessible for berry picking, trapping and other uses.
Communications is another concern on Prince of Wales, mainly the lack of cell and internet coverage in some communities and along the road system. The island needs modern-day infrastructure that allows the ability to communicate at all times, especially in emergencies, said Benner.
“It is the biggest stumbling block we have to economic development,” he said.
The placement of cell towers is one issue. Former POWCAC Chair and POWLAT member Misty Fitzpatrick, participating telephonically, asked about permitting cell tower companies to place towers on Forest Service land.
Anderson said the Forest Service is “fully supportive” of getting that infrastructure and service and is trying to analyze where to site those towers, but the issue is much more complicated.
“It’s been a challenge in getting the right providers to have the interest in providing the infrastructure,” he said.
At the beginning of the meeting, Bolling called the POWLAT roll, which included all POW communities. Several were not represented at the Saturday meeting, and Murkowski asked about those who did not participate in the POWLAT process. All were invited and welcome, and were “reached out” to, said Bolling.
But the logistics of traveling for monthly meetings — especially for communities like Point Baker, Port Protection and Edna Bay that are off the island road system — might have played a factor, he said.
Prince of Wales Chamber President Sherilyn Zellhuber said the group put a lot of time and thought into the group format and involving as many as possible. The group was totally inclusive, and some of those non-participating entities were able to provide comment through the Forest Service’s online outreach opportunity, she said.
Murkowski, who was born in Ketchikan and referred to herself as “a child of the Tongass,” expressed her gratitude in closing remarks.
“I want to applaud you and let you know how much I appreciate the efforts you have gone to, to bridge the divide, walk in someone else’s shoes… and try to think of their perspective from their views,” Murkowski said. “That takes effort.”
“I have gained considerably from the conversations I have been a part of in these past two days and the recognition that we can come together on some similar things.”
She also thanked the Forest Service staff who “work so hard every day.”
Tooke applauded the Forest Service for how it has worked with the group. He also said he appreciated all the feedback from the group.
“It is very encouraging and validates my gut instincts and observations that I’ve had in recent years, especially the last 2-3 years, that we have the biggest opportunity for people to come together and find solutions,” Tooke said. “We have the most people willing to help the Forest Service do its job and its mission than we have ever had in my career.”
Similar collaborative efforts are happening elsewhere in the country, and Tooke said he was looking forward to sharing POWLAT’s success story with others.