There is some good news for the Haines State Forest. The local forestry office has been in jeopardy ever since the legislature zeroed out its funding two years ago. But in the most recent state operating budget, one-time funding for the local forestry post made it through.
This was the budget that almost didn’t pass. But the Alaska Legislature finally came to an agreement and averted a government shutdown just eight days before the deadline.
Now that the dust has settled, Forestry Director Chris Maisch says a $102,000 allocation for Haines survived budget negotiations.
“I won’t say the pressure’s off,” said Maisch. “But it certainly buys us some time to think about how we could develop a long term-plan to think about how we could continue to staff the office with at least one individual.”
Juneau Rep. Justin Parish was on the legislators who worked to get the Haines Forestry funding into the operating budget.
“That position is very important for the local fire prevention and firefighting effort,” Parish said. “Also any place where there’s major timber sales made, I think it’s worthwhile to have a person there to supervise. And well shoot, that person, that forester, has been a bulwark for the community.”
Parish says there was ‘a bit of arm-wrestling’ involved in keeping the funding intact during budget talks.
“But I think some people in the Senate majority understand the importance of remote positions,” Parish said.
Forestry chief Maisch says the $102,000 pays for a nine-month forester salary, along with other expenses like an office rental and vehicle. He says although the funding is just for one year, it could help lead to a longer-term solution.
“Yeah, it definitely buys additional time for us to work toward a long-term solution for this,” Maisch said. “This could be the first steps toward a long-term solution. But we’ll have to see how the FY 19 budget unfolds.”
Prior to 2015, Haines had two full-time foresters. The state fiscal crisis triggered deep cuts to the Division of Forestry and funding for Haines was completely eliminated.
“We couldn’t just shut an office down overnight, especially in an area where we had a state forest to manage,” Maisch said. “There’s pieces of it that needed to be shut down in an orderly manner.”
One of those pieces is wildland fire response. Over the past couple years, the state has worked to transfer that responsibility to the feds. Recently, the U.S. Forest Service took over as the primary responder for wildland fire in the Haines State Forest.
“It just means there’s a different primary phase for wildland fire response,” Maisch said. “It used to be that we were the primary service provider there in the Haines area but we were completely surrounded by federal lands, primarily US Forest Service lands. So they have a fire program just like we do, so they were agreeable to taking over Haines area as primary responder.”
Maisch says forest fires are not a major concern for Haines in comparison to other parts of the state.
One of the arguments for keeping a local forester position is the Baby Brown timber sale. The 855-acre proposed sale would be the largest in a generation for the Haines State Forest.
Baby Brown was delayed in June after a successful appeal from a local conservation group. The Department of Natural Resources Commissioner said Forestry needed to develop land use plans for the entire area before putting the harvest out to bid.
Maisch says Haines forester Palmieri will spend much of this summer developing those Baby Brown land use plans.
The nine-month position will be supplemented with federal funding for a Tongass National Forest inventory project.
This story has been updated since Gov. Bill Walker signed off on the budget.