About 20 Haines residents came out on Wednesday to show support at public forum about the Haines forestry office. The local office, and its one employee, are at risk of becoming victims of the latest round of state budget cuts.
Decades ago, the local forestry office here had nine full-time employees. Now, it’s down to one part-timer. That lonely position might also soon be gone.
“We’re trying to come up with a plan for how we’re going to manage the office here in Haines,” says Chris Maisch, the director of the Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry.
He says the division had to axe nearly 30 staff positions in FY16 between the forest management side, and the wildland fire side. Those cuts included both forester positions in Haines. But, the division shifted some money around and was able to keep forester Greg Palmieri on for part of the year. That Band-Aid solution will carry over for this year and next, but Palmieri’s hours will be cut even more. After that, the future of the local office is up in the air.
“We’re going to continue to manage the state forest even if it’s from a far,” Maisch told the group. “But our preference would be to try and figure out some way to keep a staff person here in Haines. The problem is, basically, the only money we have is from other places in the division. It’s my management team and myself that have to come up with a mix of potential funding sources that would allow us to have a staff person here in Haines.”
Maisch and other division representatives, as well as officials from the U.S. Forest Service, were in Haines this week to scope out the state forest, and chat with its users and borough officials.
There are six forestry staff people in Ketchikan managing the 50,000-acre Southeast State Forest. By comparison, the Haines State Forest is more than 280,000 acres with one staff member. But the smaller forest produces about 80 percent of the division’s revenue, Maisch says. The money made off the Haines State Forest is less than one percent of the division’s income. There’s also a staff person in Juneau, where there is no state forest and therefore no revenue, but eliminating that position would be tough, Maisch says.
“It starts pitting different parts of the division against each other in terms of where do I take that money from. If I take it from Juneau and lay that individual off to fund this position, that’s the choice. And trying to transfer a position out of Juneau is next to impossible.”
Maisch adds if the local office closes, it would happen in July, 2018. The residents in attendance had plenty of questions and suggestions on the matter.
“How would those small sales be managed remotely?”
“How is possible you can maintain anything if you don’t have the person here in charge?”
“Maybe it’s time to think outside the box, and maybe turn that land over to the Borough of Haines, and let the Borough of Haines run the forest and it would be the Haines Forest instead of the Haines State Forest.”
That’s Spencer Douthit, John Carlson and Bill Kurz.
Maisch responded with examples of timber sales that are facilitated remotely in the Interior, and elsewhere around the state. He says someone could travel to Haines from Ketchikan or Juneau during the busier summer months. He also acknowledged that it’s not the preferred method, but it is possible. Even though the common thread in the discussion came down to the demand for timber, and the revenue, or lack thereof, coming out of the Haines forest, Maisch maintained that it’s not all about the money.
“It is very important for us to try and derive revenue from the asset,” he says. “It’s not purely what drives how we manage or why we manage state forests, it is for that multiple-use aspect.”
As for the borough taking over the forest, Maisch says he has that suggestion on his list of ideas. But, he added, that means the borough would be on the hook for staffing and maintenance costs. Keeping one forester employed, and the lights on in the office, costs the state more than $120,000 annually. The majority of that is salary and benefits. In a release from the borough this week, officials said they offered to house the office and take on the cost of rent and utilities.
“That’s partly why we came here, is we want to try and explore where we can find partnerships and energy that will help us figure out how to do what the community wants to be done here. And I’m willing to work with you to try and do that, but I still have a bigger responsibility to my statewide program that I have to keep in mind.”
So, what if the office closes but years down the line the price of oil goes up and Alaska manages to get back on its feet? Maisch says, if that happens, local management would return to the Haines State Forest. He says Haines is a “priority location.”