The past year has reinforced the importance of a diversified economy.
Ketchikan had it once, and it can have it again.
The Southeast Conference has released two publications on the topic of the economy — the 2025 Southeast Alaska Economic Plan and the 2021 Southeast Alaska Business Climate and COVID-19 Impacts Survey.
The economic plan came about over 12 months as a result of 36 workshops and meetings by more than 400 members of the conference and stakeholders in the Southeast. In addition to 63 initiatives, the plan identifies four priority objectives for the region.
They are listed as 1. Sustain and support the Alaska Marine Highway System, 2. Mariculture development, 3. Market Southeast Alaska to increase visitor opportunities, and 4. Promote beneficial electrification.
This isn’t simply another plan to be stored on the shelf until one is written to replace it.
Southeast Conference President Markos Scheer describes the plan as one “with purpose.” It is a step by step plan to grow the economy, Scheer says, with new industry and new jobs.
The COVID-19 Impacts Survey focuses on the largest Southeast communities and the economic trends of the region since 2015.
Of course it delves into the virus’ effects of revenue decline, business closure risks, the state of the economy and job potential, but it also describes the impact of government relief funding that has helped business and the economy.
The strategic plan also addresses the timber, mining and health care industries, and recognizes the import of child care, housing, communications and education. But it also discusses the value of natural disaster planning, solid waste management solutions, food security, the arts and culture.
The 52 pages between the two reports are a synopsis of what has happened in the region, but more importantly they lay out a plan for the future.
Much has been discussed about AMHS, mariculture, tourism and energy. Timber is still alive but less visible because of its smaller size. In another period it led the economy.
As in the final days of the pulp companies that operated in Ketchikan and in Sitka, timber supply remains a top priority for the industry.
The strategic plan lists a viable and dependable supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest for timber operators as the industry’s leading objective. It also calls for revisiting the Tongass Land Management Plan.
The plan includes supporting an industry that allows for both young- and old-growth harvest, building a local workforce and working with the federal government to get its timber sale opportunities to locally owned businesses. Plus, state and private timber is of interest as usual.
The region’s national forest has great opportunity with its high quality wood. But the industry has endured endless lawsuits intended to prevent timber harvest through the decades, and federal bureaucracy has complicated forward motion.
But the industry is tough. The number of timber industry jobs increased 10% or by 35 for a total of 372 in 2019. This accounted for a 20% increase in timber-related wages. The industry’s total workforce earnings amounted to $22.5 million.
Not unlike in other industries, 2020 proved challenging for the the timber industry. The U.S. Forest Service has not provided a timber supply for long-term business plans as outlined in the 2016 TLMP. Plus, Sealaska has ended timber harvest. That along with trade wars between the United States and Asia complicate the potential sales of harvested wood. U.S. lumber exports to China fell by 57% in 2019.
The industry’s hope is in the Alaska exemption to the federal Roadless Rule, which potentially would allow for economically feasible timber sales for the industry, according to the conference’s economic plan.
This is an industry that used to provide more than 3,500 high-paying jobs for the region, using a renewable resource that still exists. The most rural communities benefitted greatly from the industry.
By comparison, the visitor industry provided 8,350 annualized jobs in 2019. Wages tended to be lower than the timber industry.
But, it isn’t a matter of one industry over the other. This past year has shown that all industries are needed for a stable economy, whether it’s tourism, timber, fishing, mining, whatever is viable and likely natural-resource based.
The Southeast Conference studies provide a well done overall view of the regional economy with considerable statistics. They are available online at https://www.seconference.org.