For decades the forest sector was Alaska's second-largest industry, reaching its peak in the 70s. But since the early '90s, federal policies and management practices have failed to provide a sufficient timber supply. New government policies and federal land use shifts have particularly affected Southeast, which saw allowable harvest levels reduced significantly after the Tongass Land Use Management Plan was issued in 1997 and then amended in 2008 and 2016.
"Southeast has really struggled," says John "Chris" Maisch, state forester and director. "Most of the struggles are based on timber supply and availability of supply, in addition to what has happened with the Tongass. Less wood has meant less employment and less economic diversity. That's the bottom line."
While Southeast's economy has felt the harshest fallout from the new policies, the Interior has seen small, yet steady growth in the timber industry in recent years as wood biomass projects are implemented to fulfill the growing need for cost efficient space heating and electrical generation.
Deep Job Losses
What once was a pillar of Alaska's economy has become a shadow of its past. According to the Alaska Forest Association, the logging and wood industry employed 4,600 people in 1990. That number plummeted to approximately 400 direct logging and manufacturing jobs in 2018, in addition to 100 federal jobs that were available last year. While employment opportunities have been weakened throughout the state, Maisch notes it's especially noticeable in Southeast.
"It has diminished dramatically in Southeast," he says. "Twenty or twenty-five years ago, there were 5,000 direct employees working in the logging industry in Southeast. We use 300, roughly, as the number for Southeast jobs these days."
Maisch adds that the industry's struggles have been made especially noticeable in Alaska Economic Trends, a monthly publication by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "They used to report about different employer sectors in the back of that publication every month," he says.
"Now, I think, forestry and sawmilling are lumped in with agriculture. It doesn't even report out as its own line item anymore."
Growth in the Interior
Southeast's timber and forestry industry remains stunted, but the interior is experiencing steady growth. Northland Wood, which employs more than thirty year-round employees and as many as fifty employees during the summer, is the largest mill in the Interior. The mill opened in Fairbanks in 1965 and grew to open...