Haines State Forest (Credit: Flickr/~dgies)

Haines State Forest (Credit: Flickr/~dgies)

Forestry officials are coming to Haines next week to get the community’s perspective and share information about the impacts of continued budget cuts. Locals are encouraged to attend the community meeting hosted by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry on Wednesday. More changes are on the horizon in forest management and wildland fire management in the area.

The state forestry office in Haines has been in limbo for over a year. And it’s still not certain if, and when, the office will close.

State forester and director Chris Maisch will host the event next week. Here’s Maisch:

“And we’re still exploring how we’re going to ramp down that office with the potential, eventual closure of it. And so, that’s the purpose of this trip is to come out and visit with the leaders, community members, people that use the state forest and the services there at the local office, to make sure we really understand what that means for the community. I think we already understand that, but you never know, so that’s why we’re coming out.”

State funding for the local forestry office was zeroed out last year. But one forester position was kept after the division shifted some money to Haines. The future of the local office, however, still looks bleak.

Maisch says nothing is set in stone yet, but in reality, the only way to keep resources in Haines is to take them away from another community.

“So, that’s what I’m faced with,” he says. “Is that a high enough priority that I would make a change somewhere else in our operations to support what’s going on in Haines right now.”

He says if the local office shuts down, the Haines State Forest will be managed from elsewhere in Southeast, most likely Ketchikan.

Borough officials and residents are rallying around the local office and preparing for next week’s visit. The visit will include meetings with borough officials, staff, and state forest stakeholders. Chamber of Commerce director Debra Schnabel says the forest has so many users and functions, closing the office would be irresponsible.

“It’s not just people cutting timber for firewood, or export, or milling, or whatever,” she says.  “It includes tour operators, it includes the knowledge that enables proper road systems to be built in the community, and recreation, and subsistence. The fact of the matter is, our life is our forest.”

Schnabel spoke out at a Commerce Committee meeting on Wednesday, and says the cost of maintaining the local office isn’t much compared to the service provided.

“In the big picture, it really isn’t that much money, but I think it’s of tremendous value, so I want everyone in the community to know that we’re not talking about asking the State to put out $250 – or $500,000, we’re talking about maintaining a position.”

“This is bad timing because we’re trying to kick off the biomass project,” says  Borough Manager Bill Seward.

The borough recently received a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase chip-making equipment for the $1.5 million biomass project. Seward says they have been relying on forester Greg Palmieri for guidance.

“The state forester here in our community has been critical for that,” Seward says. “This person knows the forest first hand, can go out and evaluate the forest and tell our timber companies where go to cut, to thin out. And in return, we’re going to take that and turn it into an industry that keeps the dollar here in Haines.”

Haines is home to one of just three state forests in Alaska, and residents want to spread the word that a local representative is not just valued, but necessary.

The commerce committee voted unanimously to recommend the assembly pass a resolution supporting keeping the local forestry office open.

Alaska Mountain Guides owner Sean Gaffney, who recently got the nod to run ATV tours on state forest land, was one of several at the meeting who said the local office won’t go down without a fight.

“And I think that we need to be in a position to say that our local forest merits it, and that the value put into that process by the individual being knowledge and here, is not something that you can replicate from Ketchikan,” he says.

The community meeting takes place on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m. in the Chilkat Center lobby.