Peninsula veneer plant proposed

Funding sought to conduct studies for Seward, Nikiski operations

Posted: Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rick Smeriglio remembers his first ferry ride to Alaska years ago and how he instantly fell in love with the forest.

"It was the greatest boat ride of my life — the last great forest," Smeriglio said.

Since that time, the Moose Pass resident moved from southeast Alaska to the Kenai Peninsula and has worked as a community activist.

So a proposal to build a laminated veneer lumber mill in Seward, a type of manufactured wood, and the associated logging has him concerned.

Anchorage-based firm Northern Development Consultants requested $265,000 from the Alaska Legislature last month to conduct studies looking at two plants on the Kenai Peninsula. One would be a laminated veneer plant in Seward and the other a fiberboard plant on the central peninsula.

The fiberboard plant is a new proposal in early stages, but area business people have been eying the veneer plant for almost two years.

"I'm not an opponent of this veneer mill, and I'm not an advocate of this veneer mill," Smeriglio said.

However, he is concerned that a business relying on logging will focus on the amount of wood it needs to operate, not the amount a forest can produce. If the right size and right type of mill is built, then it would be a good thing for Seward and the borough economy, he said.

Huskywood LLC, based in Anchorage, may be interested in operating either of the plants. Anchorage resident Terry Brady owns Northern Development Consultants and is part owner of Huskywood.

The two plants and the required support that comes with their operation would employ up to 500 people, Brady said. The proposal said they would generate about $150 million in new investment.

Tembec, a Canadian wood products company, had at one time expressed interest in following the timber industry in Alaska and possibly investing in the plant if it appeared to be profitable, Brady said.

Senior staff for Gov. Frank Murkowski met with Tembec in Ottawa last week to discuss the veneer plant, Murkowski spokesperson Becky Hultberg said.

"Tembec is not in a position right now to participate in a project in Alaska," she said. But if markets improve for laminated veneer lumber, they may be interested, she said.

Murkowski has been a longtime supporter of the timber industry in Alaska. As for Northern Development's proposal, Hultberg said that will have to go through the legislative process. But a private company requesting public funds will be scrutinize closely, she said.

Willard Dunham, a Seward City Council member, said timber is a resource that is not being used and the plant would benefit the community. "(It would) open up a new industry that we don't have," he said.

Seward would be a good spot for the plant because it has a year-round port and is close to lumber sources, Brady said. If started, Huskywood would log between 10,000 and 14,000 acres per year in the Railbelt, Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, he said.

"It's a good opportunity for the peninsula," he said.

Brady's push for the veneer plant at one time was backed by Seward resident and business person Dale Lindsey. Lindsey had provided some financial backing to conduct preliminary studies and has helped make contacts to move the project forward.

In a telephone message left at the Clarion, Lindsey said he is no longer involved in the project.

Needing more money, Brady said he contacted the governor to help secure state funds to conduct additional studies. He has made no progress securing the funds to date prompting him to submit the proposal to the Legislature, he said.

Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer said value-added products is the direction the state should be moving. However, Seaton said he had not yet decided if he would support providing state funds to Northern Development.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry prepared an analysis of suitable timber supply for the proposed plant in the Matanuska Valley, Kenai Peninsula and the Tanana Valley in 2003. Some of the parcels would require roads to be built or improvements on existing roads.

Marty Freeman, forest resources programming manager for Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said her office was contacted to identify possible timber sources. But since this report was put together, there has been no contact with the governor's office, she said.

Brady, also a forester, wrote in his proposal to the Legislature that the peninsula is on the verge of having massive forest fires from "wasting forest resources." Logging operations would reduce this risk, he wrote.

In a letter to the Anchorage Daily News last year, Lindsey wrote that Alaska's commercial timber resources are being lost from insects, decay and disease turning "much of our timberland into tinder land." He wrote that this resource is only a "spark away from widespread disaster and devastation."

Mark Luttrell, president of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula Action Association in Seward, is opposed to the veneer plant. He said forests become liabilities after they are logged. New roads invite the bad habits of humans such as littering, poaching and all-terrain-vehicle use.

Natural forests are not tinder boxes, he said. After they are logged, the left over leaves, twigs and branches become major fire hazards, he said.

Another problem, Luttrell said is the mountains around Seward would block the smoke leaving a cloud around the city.

"A forest becomes a liability after it has been logged," Luttrell said. "I would question the need for the public to pay for a quarter of a million dollar feasibility study."

Jack Brown, business development manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said the borough supports the veneer and fiberboard plant.

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