Daily Sitka Sentinel
A high-ranking U.S. Forest Service official visited Sitka Tuesday as part of a swing through Southeast to learn more about the Tongass National Forest.
Arthur “Butch” Blazer, who has been on the job as the Department of Agriculture’s Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment since October, didn’t have much to say about local issues, such as Sealaska’s claim on Forest Service land near Redoubt Lake or a recent visit to Washington, D.C., by a group of Southeast fishermen who want the Forest Service to spend more money on salmon habitat restoration.
“At this point, being that this is my first trip, my first interaction, I’m learning,” Blazer said during an afternoon meeting with local reporters in a second-floor conference room at the Sitka Ranger District’s office on Siginaka Way. “I’m not prepared to say much in regards to what I think people should do. I’m not there yet.”
Blazer, who is originally from New Mexico and served as the state forester there under former Gov. Bill Richardson, met with officials from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Coast Guard Tuesday, among others. He visited Ketchikan Monday and was due in Juneau for a meeting of the Federal Subsistence Board today.
The Department of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service and Blazer was making his first trip to the Tongass, the largest national forest in the country.
He said the Forest Service is “having discussions in regards to areas that can be looked at that may result in not only improved forest health, but potential job creation.”
Asked about STA’s concerns, Blazer said: “Their concerns are probably the same concerns as Alaskan people that live in these rural areas...They’re concerned about jobs, how to provide for their families, energy costs, subsistence issues, how do they continue to provide for their families. All of those concerns are directly or indirectly related to the great, tremendous natural resources of this area, which the Tongass plays a huge role in.”
Blazer said he was not familiar with the Southeast contingent that recently visited Washington, D.C., to ask the Forest Service to spend more money on habitat restoration. But he said he supports restoration efforts that would create jobs.
“In regards to increased restoration activity on the Tongass that could perhaps result in more jobs, more opportunities for local people, I’m definitely interested in that,” Blazer said.
He added that balancing the needs of economics, the environment and the “sustainability and health of our rural communities” is the crux of managing national forest land.
“They’re all tied together and that balance is very important,” he said.
Some in the environmental community are skeptical of the Forest Service’s efforts on restoration.
Paul Olson, a local fisherman and attorney who is part of a new environmental group in the region, said the Forest Service is passing off forest thinning as restoration while continuing to log old growth forests in the southern part of Southeast.
“The priority right now is to do thinning and call it restoration,” said Olson, who is president of The Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, which formed last June. “Most of the thinning projects are designed to grow trees faster for a generation of loggers 50 years from now.”
Olson said he was skeptical of any restoration project that is tied to job growth.
“The restoration that would be the most valuable isn’t going to stimulate jobs,” Olson said. “They need to fix culverts, they’re not doing that.”
Olson said The Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community formed because the older environmental groups have “abdicated” their role as a watchdogs.
“They’re no longer challenging old growth logging,” Olson said.
Blazer declined comment on the issues surrounding Sealaska’s claim on Redoubt. The Forest Service has spent more than $3 million operating a fish weir there since 1982, but has declined to fight the regional Native corporation’s claim on the land in recent years.
The Forest Service requested an easement to protect the subsistence sockeye fishery at Redoubt in 2005, but the claim has moved forward in the BLM process without any guarantees on access to the fishery.
“Being that it appears to be a very, very important issue, I don’t want to misspeak,” Blazer said.