Loggers bristle at seeing industry turned into entertainment

Posted: Monday, July 17, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- For struggling logging communities on Prince of Wales Island, the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan is like salt in a wound.

Prince of Wales loggers have their own competition each July, when they come out of the woods to test their skills at the fairgrounds in Thorne Bay.

But most of the lumberjacks performing for tourists three times a day in Ketchikan have never worked in the woods.

That doesn't bother the tourists. The show opened in May on the site of Ketchikan's historic spruce mill and already the $30 tickets are sold on board every cruise ship. When the boats are in dock the 500-seat grandstand is packed, said company CEO and champion log-roller Rob Scheer.

''They (the cruise companies) were very enthusiastic to know they could send their people over there and they would be warm and comfortable and dry,'' said Scheer, referring to the cushioned, heated, sheltered seats.

The enthusiasm is not shared on Prince of Wales Island, where logging is a livelihood.

The Lumberjack Show arrived at a rough time anyway, with the closure of the Ketchikan Pulp Co. mill and related loss of 1,700 timber industry jobs.

Judy Willis at the Riggin Shack general store in Naukati on Prince of Wales' northwest coast has watched the town's population dwindle. Where there were 70 loggers going into the woods each day five years ago, now there are about nine.

When the loggers first heard about the Lumberjack Show, they thought it might be a job opportunity, Willis said. But then it turned out the Wisconsin-based operator was bringing all the performers from out-of-state.

Jan Kyle, at Prince of Wales Island Air Services, has strong words for the tourist entertainment.

''It makes me ill that they have a show of what an industry used to be like,'' Kyle said. ''It's like Ketchikan sold out. They just sold out and said 'Let's entertain those tourists and get their money.'''

''What's Ketchikan going to do next? Put up an aquarium and show how you used to catch fish?'' Kyle asked. ''I'd rather they had a real live circus with elephants in tutus.''

Scheer said he's heard the complaints about the ''circus logging show,'' but in general the logging community has been supportive.

''We came in here at a time that was very emotional. There were a lot of wounds in the timber industry,'' Scheer said. ''We're putting a really positive spin on the timber industry and logging in general. We are actually giving people that are coming in here by the tens of thousand each week a good reason to be pro-timber industry.''

The Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry organization, sees the benefit of getting tourists to cheer for loggers, even if they are only performers.

''We think that the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is a great thing,'' said Rachael Moreland at the Alaska Forest Association in Ketchikan. ''It's a great way for visitors to see some of the historic aspects of the industry.''

While the Lumberjack Show draws cruise ship passengers, annual logging fairs in Thorne Bay, Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Juneau bring together the locals.

''We call it the authentic logging show,'' said Jenny Wise at the Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce.

Until a few years ago the competitors in Thorne Bay were almost all working loggers, Kyle said. Now some events are open to anybody, including the chainsaw toss, which had 80 contestants last year.

Christy Gardner, who won the women's chainsaw toss last year, works for the Forest Service.

''Everybody from all over the island, whether they log or not, comes to it,'' Gardner said. ''The logging show is just a big event for the island. It's mainly an excuse for people to get together and have a good time.''

Partly to keep professionals from stealing the show, the Prince of Wales Fair and Logging Show has a new rule for this year's fair, which runs July 29 and 30 in Thorne Bay. Contestants for most logging events must actually work for a logging company.

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