U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman is traveling around Southeast Alaska this week. On Saturday he met with the Juneau Economic Development Council, and then traveled to Sitka on Sunday to hear from business and community leaders about the future of the Tongass National Forest.
Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service, last visited the region about a year ago. Sunday’s conversation in Sitka was closed to the general public and the news media. Sherman spoke with reporters afterward.
“The ability to get together and work harmoniously on issues can make a tremendous difference,” he said. “And I think we’re seeing here today in Sitka and elsewhere, a much greater collaboration than we’ve seen in the past.”
Sherman says a lot of that collaboration is taking place between the timber industry and the environmental community. He says both sides have a vested interest in restoring the Tongass National Forest.
Among the groups represented on Sunday was the Sitka Conservation Society, which urged Sherman to increase funding to restoration efforts. Their proposal calls for $80 million over 10 years for restoration, $5 million over five years for fisheries enhancement, and $2.25 million for education programs aimed at tourists and schools. It also urges more money for research and rural development.
Andrew Thoms is executive director of the Conservation Society. He says the Forest Service, especially locally, is heading in the right direction.
“I think the Sitka District has really shown the way and their fisheries and watershed crew are leaders on the Tongass National Forest,” Thoms said. “We’re leading the way and we’re hoping for funding that continues that program and bolsters it. Today in the meeting they heard about how important permitting and licensing is for our hydroelectric projects, and how we need to shift resources from the timber program to the hydro program so that communities like Sitka, which are vying for projects like Blue Lake, can get those moving.”
Blue Lake is one of two sources of hydro electric power in Sitka. The city is in the middle of a project to raise the dam and install additional equipment that will help generate more power.
Sherman says for him, the takeaway message from Sunday’s roundtable was that various interests in Sitka are willing to work together.
“You’ve got a community that is working together; they’re very focused on what they want to achieve. I think they realize that a strong partnership with the federal government is important, as well as with the state governments, tribal governments. We’re going to work hard to build that partnership.”
Sherman is scheduled to be in Ketchikan and Craig for the rest of the week.
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