Building a Better Backyard: Locals Inventory Alaska’s Young Growth

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly

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Southeast Alaskans are not shy around the forest. Our rural communities are surrounded by the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. We build homes and businesses with the natural resources those lands provide. Every summer, Alaskans are reminded that the majority of the fish that feed our world-renowned salmon industry begin their lives among these trees. We escape into the forest and disappear between the spruce and hemlock in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer or wild mushrooms. We are forest people, and a coalition of land managers across the region are collaborating to ensure that the people who help manage these forests are the same people who call these lands their backyard.

Harrison Voegeli is one such man. “Seeing that locals are out in the forest hunting — they are the ones out in the forest cutting their firewood and getting trees for their totems — it’s very important to have the participation of locals,” Voegeli said. Voegeli is one of ten people who are spending their workdays inspecting the forests on Prince of Wales Island.

“At the moment, the timber industry is geared toward cutting down old trees. Trees that have been alive for several hundred years to in some cases, several thousand years. These older trees have older, denser and harder wood than young trees, but now there is a push to move away from cutting these old forests because the health of our forest is tied to these old growth stands,” explained Voegeli. “We want to start cutting trees that are younger than 150 years but not all are ready to be logged yet. So what we are doing is going out and determining how long it will take until they are ready.”

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The crew are measuring trees, recording forest stand makeup and collecting a suite of data that is helping land managers paint a more detailed picture of our young growth forests. The inventory was initiated through an agreement between the State of Alaska and the USDA Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry arm earlier this year. The goal is to collect valuable forest data to aid Southeast’s transition to a predominantly young-growth timber industry. It’s also an opportunity to develop a local workforce.

Jason Anderson is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Tongass National Forest. “As we went out to try and understand what’s going in that older young growth timber on the forest, the need to capture that data was a good fit for figuring out how the work of that data collection could also benefit local communities who are interested in working in the natural resource field,” said Anderson.

The crew conduclayton_1-1cting the inventory come from a range of backgrounds. “Clayton Smally is kind of a local legend. He’s 57 now and he had been logging here since he was 14,” Voegeli said. “A couple of years ago he decided he was done with logging and wanted to see a different side, now of conservation. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks!”

Then there’s Brent O’Conner, a former manager at Papa’s Pizza who wanted to try his hands at an outdoor job. Some have kids; one is a forester.

This group attended an academy in the spring that prepared them for careers in local forestry. This two-week field course was facilitated by Haa Aani, LLC (a subsidiary of Sealaska that is dedicated to local economic development) Kai Environmental, the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska.

“Working with our partners, we put together the Forest Academy and found that we have an interested group of people who want to participate in that work and learn more about the forest while producing really valuable data that helps us manage those lands into the future,” said Anderson.

“Having a local workforce that understands forest dynamics rather than having the Forest Service, for example, hiring someone to come up from Kentucky for the summer to look at trees and after that they leave, is really really good. It brings the local community in to be a part of the process where they are able to make decisions and be informed and inform their fellows about what’s going on in the forest, and how their lands are being managed,” Voegeli said.

The academy was the collaborative effort of multiple land managers to train a skilled local workforce that could be called upon for work on both private and public lands. All eight of those who attended the academy were offered work on Prince of Wales.

“My sense is that all land managers are motivated by similar interests: a skilled workforce that they can count on to do work year after year to support the forest industry, not just logging but all activities that occur in forest landscapes,” Anderson said. “And these jobs will always be stable. I think the public will always expect goods and services from their lands — both public and private…. Individuals who already live here and love it have great employment potential and that is what are seeing so far.”

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There are plans to orchestrate a second Academy in the next several months that would invite interested folks from beyond Prince of Wales to get professional development experience catered to work in Southeast Alaska’s forests. For more information check www.sustainablesoutheast.net or contact Alana Peterson, the Program Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aaani LLC directly at 907-747-3132 or Alana.Peterson@sealaska.com.

Yakutat Travels to DC to Discuss Broadband

Written by Paul Harding

The mission of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLBC) is to promote public policies which improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries, healthcare providers, other anchor institutions and their surrounding communities.

Trip Goals
The purpose of attending the 2016 SHLB conference was multi-fold:
1) To be better acquainted with the new E-Rate program rules, regulations, and federal guidelines.
2) To connect with FCC advisors and attorneys in order to better facilitate the current fiber optic project in Yakutat.
3) To develop a network of business and advisory peers that can assist in the complicated process of navigating ‘E-Rate waters’.
4) To promote the current fiber optic project in Yakutat in order to facilitate the RFI and RFP process.
5) To better assess the fiber optic project master plan for Yakutat by means of openly discussing Yakutat’s special geographic and financial hurdles with business leaders, FCC Advisors, FCC attorneys, and technical administrators.
6) To better understand all the nuances of the procurement process within the E-Rate, USAC and FCC arena.

Workshops attended

While there were a number of plenary sessions and workshops offered during this conference, it was the workshops that yielded the majority of useful information. As such, I will only highlight some of the more interesting and notable issues that came up.

E-Rate and Fiber Build-Out workshop

This particular workshop was an amazing insight into USAC’s development and operationalization of the E-Rate process in toto. Everything from how to issue an RFP, evaluating competing bids, and structuring one’s application to maximize the chance for approval was covered in depth. This particular workshop was quite valuable as the lead writer of the E-Rate rules and regulations, Chas Eberle (Attorney Advisor, FCC), was present and available for questions. Also on the board was Joe Freddoso (Advisor to USAC).

Of the many topics covered, the primary tenets of what I found to be of interest revolved around the basic notions of:
• Cost defensibility
• Cost efficacy as it intersects with functionality
• Value to/for a community vs. cost effectiveness
• Cost reasonableness vs. a quality build, all against the backdrop of the notion of ‘community benefit’ and ‘projected community growth’.

Financing and Fiber Construction Build vs. Buy: What are we in for once we ask this question?

The primary discussion during this workshop centered on ‘cost value vs. community benefit’. E-Rate’s central focus in bringing fiber to communities is the ‘lowest possible cost’, and this issue came up many times during this workshop. And while there was much discussion regarding what community benefit was derived from narrowly defining the cost allocation of a project, the usual response from the board was, “those are the rules.” Although seemingly unhelpful, this sort of response generated yet more discussion regarding the FCC guidelines for the E-Rate program such that the principle attorneys later remarked that they would need to revisit some of the more restrictive guidelines and review their utility. Despite the overwhelming time spent on this issue, there was time allotted for discussing the different types of builds that are permissible through E-Rate: dark vs. lit, self-provisioned vs. leased, priority 1 vs. priority 2.

Ask an E-Rate Attorney

Given the previous discussions that had be circulating in previous workshops, the clear point of contention for most attendees was the issue of cost efficacy vs. community value. While much of the time was spent attempting to pick apart E-rate’s cost allocation process by getting FCC advisors and USAC attorneys to voice an explicit equation by which to determine the intersection of community value and cost reasonableness, ultimately USAC attorneys begrudgingly ceded that there must be a cost defensibility. When questioned further on the meaning of this phrase, one of the attorneys simply stated that the cost of any project must be able to be defended given the number of anchor organizations and people served. It was later decided amongst attendees that your ability to argue a case need merely be par with the cost of the project and given the how many organization and people are served.

Discussion

Following the SHLB conference, I was able to spend about an hour with Mr. Freddoso (Advisor to USAC), Kela Halfmann (E-Rate Coordinator, SERRC), and John Harrington (CEO of Funds for Learning). During this time I was able to discuss the current geological and fiscal hurdles that Yakutat faces and ask how we might best work around/through some of these issues given the parameters of the E-Rate program guidelines. In Addition, we discussed additional funding through organizations that support the development of telecommunications infrastructure – i.e., USDA, Health Connect Fund, Broadband USA, and Community Connect. There was also some discussion regarding the master plan for the fiber optic project in Yakutat and plentiful reasons I ought to consider narrowing the scope of the project to better ensure our success in bringing fiber to the community.

I also spent much time with talking with individuals from the FCC, USAC and SERRC regarding the procurement process and the necessary strategies for getting companies to come to the table and bid on an RFP. There was also much discussion on whether or not a pre-meeting with potential builders/vendors could yield any results in conjunction with either an RFI or RFP.

I was lucky enough to garner the attention of a publicist who had much advice for me regarding the RFP process. We discussed at length one of the on-going problems that Yakutat tends to have given the small size of our town and the limited number of vendors we have in town as a result of our population: monopolies. A number of promising suggestions were made on how to better navigate the RFP process on a project of this magnitude such that we are able to ensure we find ourselves with very few bids

Conclusion

After having discussed the logistical issues that Yakutat is facing in the technological, geographic and economic arenas, I have decided to modify the fiber optic master plan to better demonstrate an understanding of the complexities that this project faces. As such, I will immediately dissolve the current consortium between Hoonah, Yakutat, Pelican and Gustavus. I will, then, set my focus to creating a consortium between CBY, YTT, the school, clinic and, potentially, a library. Following this, I will prepare and submit an RFI that will attempt to yield information on Yakutat’s current distance from the pre-existing fiber line, cost for connecting to said fiber line (the build), and cost of service. Additionally, given the structure of the new consortium which will now include in-eligible E-rate participants, I will have E-rate determine what percentage of the project they will fund. With this information in hand I can better determine what amount of monies will be required to satisfy the balance of this project. With this new configuration, the fiber plan will more adequately fit the cost reasonableness of a project of this size and will ensure our success during the E-Rate funding process.

Salvage to Song

Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly 

Brent Cole demonstrates soundboard production in his wood shop.

Brent Cole demonstrates soundboard production in his wood shop.

With Folkfest happening this week, Southeast Alaskans will be swinging, dancing and celebrating the changing seasons. If you are lucky enough to attend, keep your ears on the mandolins, acoustic guitars and other stringed instruments. The woods for many of these instruments begin their lives as the ancient giants of our beloved forest.

Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is the largest producer of soundboards in the state. Soundboards are the wood responsible for producing the iconic sounds of many music instruments. In 2014, I visited with Brent and Annette Cole and toured their operation near Craig on Prince of Wales Island. In the spirit of Folkfest, I called up the couple to hear about business and learn more about the soundboards they produce from tonewood on the Tongass National Forest.

Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family-operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business’ humble and family oriented beginnings.

“The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with Brent and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack, to take home,” she said.

Brent and Annette Cole stand inside their original shop. Since May of 2015, the couple have begun production in their new facility, where drying, processing and storage can happen under one roof. Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

Brent and Annette Cole stand inside their original shop. Since May of 2015, the couple have begun production in their new facility, where drying, processing and storage can happen under one roof. Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

When I visited in 2014, the family was churning out soundboards from a series of bucolic wood sheds caked in sawdust and jam-packed with wood in all directions. As of May last year, Alaska Specialty Woods grew to include a shiny new facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. If they were operating at 100 percent, Brent estimates the family business could produce close to ten thousand soundboards a month. Currently, they are operating at about 20 percent due to a slump in demand for mid-range guitars.

“We produce for all guitar types, all pianos, and then things like double basses, bouzoukis, ouds, harps, mandolins and others,” he said. Sales of guitar tops may be down from previous years, but other instrument sales are on the upswing. “We have seen things pick up with custom builders of ukuleles lately. Traditionally, ukuleles have used back, sides and top wood made of the same wood, and now they migrated more to using hard woods for the back and sides, like guitars, but have gone to a softwood for the soundboard, and people are liking the sound an awful lot, and they are selling,” he said.

So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the Adonis of tonewood, which is why Brent’s products are coveted by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent instrument crafters from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other places as well.

“The whole music world comes here for our spruce. Because of our geography, this is heaven for Sitka spruce, which is the premier tonewood in the world right now because of its availability and because of its tight rings, stiffness, weight ratio and its fine texture due to it being old-growth. There is nowhere else in the world that produces this type of timber anymore, and when the old growth is gone, we won’t have it either,” Brent said.

Brent and Annette are proud stewards for the sustainable management of our old-growth forests. The family salvages 100 percent of the wood it uses to produce soundboards from existing dead trees. The Coles search the forest for appropriate timber and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service. The Forest Service then refers to a long list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges. This mantra of salvage, reuse and waste reduction is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.

“All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste — not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on — as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable, the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture. This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don’t know that that wood is going to ‘waste’ if left in the forest. But, I like to see it get used and if it’s used to put groceries on a family’s table then, I think that’s a good thing.”

Once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little goes to waste. Every possible space on their property is crammed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by Alaska Specialty Woods, with not a single inch unused: when excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried twenty feet under the earth during a landslide.

“We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray,” he said. Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. “It’s 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years,” Annette said. The tonewood is sold on their website under the “Ancient Sitka Line.” “There’s a lot of history recorded in our boards. Every one of those growth lines is a year, and we aren’t going to use anything less than a 300-year-old tree to get a sound board out of,” Brent said.

Brent and Annette Cole unearthed a spruce while building a new facility for their company. Once exposed to the air the blonde wood began to turn a brilliant blue. They sent a sample off to be carbon dated, and it turns out the tree is about 2800 years old. Alaska Specialty Woods sells this wood in their "Ancient Sitka Line." Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

Brent and Annette Cole unearthed a spruce while building a new facility for their company. Once exposed to the air the blonde wood began to turn a brilliant blue. They sent a sample off to be carbon dated, and it turns out the tree is about 2800 years old. Alaska Specialty Woods sells this wood in their “Ancient Sitka Line.” Photo Bethany Goodrich, 2014.

So how likely is it that the guitars you hear during Folkfest have a bit of Southeast in their structure? I asked Brent to estimate what percentage of string instruments use Sitka Spruce from the Southeast.

“For the world market of instruments, boy, when we start getting into bowed instruments then it’s a different story because violins and viola and cellos use European spruce from Italy and Switzerland and Germany. But, in the acoustic market I would say the Sitka Spruce makes up at least 70 or 80 percent of the world market of acoustic soundboard production, including pianos. Maybe even 90 percent; it’s just huge.”

To learn more about Alaska Specialty Woods check out http://alaskawoods.com.

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership Attends Yakutat 2020 Strategic Planning Event

20151110_113934Four Sustainable Southeast Partnership partners traveled to Yakutat in November to participate in the Yakutat 2020 Strategic Planning Event. This meeting is a community wide effort to develop a strategic plan around Housing, Technology/Education, Healthcare, and Economic Development. It was hosted by the The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and other represented organizations included Yakutat Kwaan, City & Borough of Yakutat, Yakutat School District, Indian Health Services, Rasmuson Foundation, USDA Rural Development, and Action Strategy. Attendee. Participants spent two days discussing ideas, sharing concerns, and identifying roles and actions that each organization can take to move the community forward over the next 5 years.  

Over the two day event, it became clear that if the community wants to successfully build a new health clinic, improve housing shortages, grow the economy, and provide quality education to youth, it will only do so by forging relationships among organizations and finding creative ways together to solve those challenges. At the same time, it was determined that the community of Yakutat could benefit by tapping into the larger SSP network. Yakutat has since brought on a Community Catalyst that is working directly with SSP partners.

Participating SSP organizations included Haa Aaní, LLC, The Nature Conservancy, and Renewable Energy Alaska Project. The success of this event shows that within the region we collectively have the ability to strengthen our communities. Great strides forward can be made by  sharing information, skills and resources across organizational boundaries. SSP is a collective impact initiative where partner organizations and communities share values of increasing community resiliency, and ensuring that future generations can continue to prosper in Southeast Alaska and we look forward to continuing our work with Yakutat!

Annual Innovation Summit shows the opportunity of economic crisis

Governor Walker addresses the audience at the annual Innovation Summit, calling Alaskans to collaborate and offer creative solutions to Alaska's fiscal challenges.

Governor Walker addresses the audience at the annual Innovation Summit, calling Alaskans to collaborate and offer creative solutions to Alaska’s fiscal challenges.

Written for Capital City Weekly by Bethany Goodrich

The state’s fiscal crisis is no tiny problem. Oil prices are volatile, reserves are depleting and the state is facing a financial deficit. At this year’s Innovation Summit, held in Juneau in early February, Governor Walker addressed more than two hundred of the state’s top entrepreneurs, politicians, investors and leaders. He discussed his budget plan and the need to diversify and shift the state away from a mono-focus on a non-renewable oil industry.

Tough budget cuts, Walker explained are inevitable. “Of course, you can’t make everybody happy,” Walker said. “But nobody is happy with this year’s budget proposal, not even my wife.” That being said, Walker stressed the importance of having a plan, no matter the difficulty and heartbreak involved with drafting that plan. That fiscal plan, he said, was written in pencil, not pen. Rebuilding a stronger Alaskan economy will require a collaborative effort that cuts across sectors. The governor looked across the audience, asking for input and calling upon the creativity and resourcefulness that comes naturally to Alaskans.

His plea was answered. Optimism for building a more diverse and robust economy was high throughout the Summit. Held annually by the Juneau Economic Development Council with the support of many statewide partners, the Innovation Summit brings together diverse perspectives from across Alaska and the nation. Those people collaborate and develop economic strategies, aiming to create positive change for our region and state. Keynote speakers present their global experiences, Alaskan entrepreneurs and innovators share their work, participants collaborate during breakout sessions and this year, four local startups competed for a cash prize while pitching their business concepts to a diverse audience over breakfast.

Speakers and activities were varied and diverse. However, a number of resounding themes were constant throughout. Rebuilding a more resilient Alaskan economy requires that we diversify, invest locally and collaborate in new ways.

Collaborate

The opening remarks of President Richard J. Peterson of Central Council Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska responded to the fiscal crisis with a strong sense of opportunity. “This challenge is also an opportunity. It is forcing non-traditional partners to come together and collaborate,” he said. New partnerships are forming across the state as a means for sharing resources and perspectives to tackle common challenges.

The Southeast Cluster Initiative is one example of organized collaboration. The Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) supports “clusters,” which are essentially working groups whose members identify synergies and capitalize on ways to work together and facilitate growth in the areas of ocean products, visitor products, renewable energy, mining services and supply, research and development and arts and culture. This year at the Summit, Brian Holst, the Executive Director of the JEDC, encouraged cluster participants to amp up efforts to collaborate creatively across working groups.

During the Summit’s “Innovation Shorts,” representatives from a pioneering land management effort in the rural community of Hoonah presented on the power of their collaborative community approach. The Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is bringing together diverse partners, including the Hoonah Indian Association, Huna Totem, Sealaska, the City of Hoonah and the U.S. Forest Service, to combine forces and expertise to manage the landscape surrounding Hoonah for a diversity of land uses. From commercial berry harvesting to recreation, subsistence resources to a sustainable rotational timber industry, the team is managing for a long list of community-identified priorities. The project is directing a new collaborative community-based land management model for the region that maximizes long-term ecological, social and economic benefits for rural communities.

This year's Path to Prosperity sustainable business plan grants were awarded to Sawmill Farm in Sitka and the Salty Pantry in Petersburg.

This year’s Path to Prosperity sustainable business plan grants were awarded to Sawmill Farm in Sitka and the Salty Pantry in Petersburg.

Invest Locally

Michael Shuman is an economist, attorney, entrepreneur and author. During his engaging keynote, he vehemently argued against the mentality that strong state economies are built by attracting and retaining big outside industry. “The idea that if you support the globalized economy first, that the local economy will take care of itself is wrong. In fact, it is the exact opposite,” Shuman said. Investing locally and focusing on self reliance is not about ignoring or disengaging from the global economy, he added. “Self reliance is about approaching the global economy from a position of strength.”

Shuman showed how a dollar spent at a local business circulates within the community between two and four times more than a dollar spent at an outside business. This is in part because local businesses invest locally. They buy supplies locally and seek supporting services locally. Investing in locally owned and operated startups also keeps control and power in the hands of locals. Importantly, Shuman showed how these types of investments are not a high-risk leap of faith either. Entrepreneurs are equipped for the challenge and small business is playing a burgeoning, growing role in the global economy, with high profit margins and ample job growth. Local is competitive, Shuman stressed, and huge strides can be made if we shift our focus, efforts and funds from the failing “attract and retain” mentality to a structure that supports our local entrepreneurs.

This call to invest locally was backed by a suite of Alaskan entrepreneurs who made it clear that they are ready for the challenge. Some, like Ben and Nick Kellie of Kenai Alaska’s K2 Dronotics, are looking to new technologies like drones to build lucrative businesses while addressing challenges that are unique to Alaska. The brothers explained how drones are powerful tools for work that is dangerous, dirty, remote, and dull– situations that are ample in Alaska.

Others are adapting age-old “technologies” to solve Alaska’s contemporary issues. Bobbi Daniels, owner of The Sawmill Farm in Sitka, stole the show, winning the Pitch Breakfast and also receiving one of two annual Path to Prosperity sustainable business plan awards. Daniel’s short pitch of “turning trash into bacon” was a popular one. Sitka pays to barge thousands of pounds of food waste to a landfill in eastern Washington. Daniels saw this as a grand business opportunity for feeding and raising livestock in rural Alaska. “People approach me saying ‘what a great idea,’” Daniels said upon accepting her prize. “But more than being innovative, I’m just old,” she laughed. “I remember how we used to farm with zero waste.” The Sawmill Farm aims to feed Sitka while reducing the community’s carbon footprint, supporting a stronger local food economy and helping close a critical loop by decreasing meat barged in and waste barged out.

Arts and culture plays a formidable role in Southeast Alaska's economy. Crystal Worl entertained Innovation Summit guests during a stunning dinner performance.

Arts and culture plays a formidable role in Southeast Alaska’s economy. Crystal Worl entertained Innovation Summit guests during a stunning dinner performance.

Diversify

There was no shortage in the diversity of business concepts pitched during the summit. From pig farms, virtual reality tourism opportunities, distilleries and drones, Alaskans showed just how diverse their ideas and our state’s untapped resources can be. The 2016 Innovation Summit made clear, however, that bolstering the state’s economy requires more than a diversity in the types of startups. Speakers urged participants to think creatively and also diversify our approach to economic thinking.

For example, Matt Hirschfeld, the Medical Director of Alaska Native Medical Center, outlined the serious long-term economic impact that adverse childhood experiences, such as drug abuse and domestic abuse, have on the state. Victims of early age abuse cost the state billions of dollars in programming and medical costs. What if we invested more in preventative programming? We could not only boost the health, wellbeing and happiness of our population, but we could save more money in the process. Shuman pointed to the example of state medical expenditures and costs. Perhaps Alaska can’t localize the creation of pharmaceuticals or costly medical devices, but what if we invested in more preventative infrastructure? Again, we can build a healthier population while preventing more money from leaking out of our state’s economy.

The economic crisis is presenting the opportunity for Alaskans to restructure the state in a more resilient, sustainable and just way. “We think incorrectly that there is a tradeoff, that we can’t have it all when it comes to economics,” argued Michael Shuman. “When we actually can.” We can support an economic plan that boosts state happiness and health, while keeping more money circulating regionally. Participants of this year’s Innovation Summit showed how Alaskans are willing and able to answer the governor’s call to action by stepping up to build a more sustainable and robust economic future for the Last Frontier.

Breathing New Life into Kake’s Historic Cannery: Reconstruction Project to Stimulate Rural Alaskan Economy

Photos and Story by Bethany Goodrich, For Alaska Business Monthly December 2015

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It was approaching dusk in April when something out-of-the-ordinary, yet strangely familiar, caught Casimero Aceveda’s eye. “It was like something being reborn,” says Aceveda. The lights in the old cannery were on for the first time in almost 40 years.

Aceveda is the tribal president for the community of Kake. A predominately Tlingit village of ~650 residents, Kake is located on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. Like many of its elder residents, Aceveda grew up in the days when the salmon cannery was thriving.

“People were happy they were working. Our sisters and aunties would babysit the younger ones. Our dads fished and our moms worked on the cannery. It was a central part of our life,” remembers Aceveda.

At its peak, the Kake cannery was a force to be reckoned with. In 1930 it exported 615,000 full cases of salmon, more than double what its competitors produced.

“Everyone was working, everyone was doing things and things were going well. The cannery was really the hub of employment and activity at the time,” says Aceveda.

As the political, environmental and economic atmosphere that stimulated the canning industry waned, Kake’s cannery joined others across the region in collapse.

“When the cannery closed down around 1980, everybody had started putting away their fishing boots and were going into the woods to go logging, so it switched from one entity to the other and the cannery kind of fell to the wayside. The community altogether changed,” says Aceveda.

Breathing new life back into Kake’s historic cannery buildings has been a dream for Aceveda and his community for decades. Although tinged with nostalgia for the past, the cannery restoration project has more to do with securing Kake’s future.

“This is about all entities working together for the common cause of economic development and education for our kids. They need to step up and help themselves but they can’t do that unless we can offer a space for them to go and do it,” says Aceveda.

This was once the bustling site of Kake’s historic cannery. Today, the site is being stabilized and renovated to suite Kake’s modern economy. In the process, local workers and local wood (pictured) are being utilized wherever possible to inject more money into the community.

This was once the bustling site of Kake’s historic cannery. Today, the site is
being stabilized and renovated to suite Kake’s modern economy. In the process, local workers and local
wood (pictured) are being utilized wherever possible to inject more money into the community.

Teetering on Catastrophe

In 1997, the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service recognized the Kake cannery as a National Historic Landmark. After two of the buildings later collapsed, the cannery was added to a less celebrated list: the “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The need for help was urgent. After years of working tirelessly with state and federal agencies, Kake’s call was finally answered on Christmas Eve, 2014. Gary Williams, the executive director of the Organized Village of Kake (which is the tribal government for the Kake area), was contacted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Funding had come through.

“When they told us the amount, it truly and literally brought tears to my eyes because it gave us enough, along with other resources we had found, to do the stabilization that needed to be done. That was the Christmas Miracle, it was truly a blessing,” says Williams.

Securing funding was only part of the struggle. The magnitude of the job that lay ahead was formidable. There were no blueprints and the remaining structures literally teetered on the verge of catastrophe. This contract would require a fearless, imaginative and talented crew to complete. In January of 2015, came Kake’s second miracle.

“This is fun, you’ve got to use your imagination, and you’ve got to figure it out. New construction can get boring. This job does not bore me,” says Greg Harrison.

Greg Harrison is the owner and operator behind Diversified Diving, a Ketchikan based construction company. While working with the tribe, the project’s engineer, Harrison and his crew have risen to the challenge with grace and good humor.

“With a job like this, there is a lot of shimmying that happens. When you are doing a new construction you try and get everything plumb and level. These guys will be working on something here and be like ‘Well it’s an inch and a half off Greg!’ and it’s like well, after almost a hundred years I’d call that perfect!” laughs Harrison.

The team is innovative. They rely on the tides to help raise heavy wood pilings, salvage wood from the original structure whenever possible and straighten the building with a series of counterbalances. The magnitude of the construction is impressive. There’s something else notable happening here: local wood and local workers.

Adam Davis is the Community & Economic Development Specialist for the Tribe.

“The scale is impressive, the scale of the work being done with mostly local hands, local wood and materials. It’s very impressive to see and, now that the building is getting more work done on the outside, it’s coming to more people’s attention. People are taking note and more of the community is getting excited about what this all means for Kake’s economy,” says Davis.

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Diversified Diving uses beams that have been milled by Kevin Merry using locally harvested timber to replace rotten ones. The project explores every opportunity to stimulate the local economy.

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Kevin Merry milling locally harvested timber at his saw mill in Kake, Alaska.

A Community-Driven Economy

While the dream of rebuilding Kake’s historic cannery has been lingering for decades, it was during a series of community economic meetings that the project was formally established as a priority. Currently, Kake is the only rural community in southeast Alaska that regularly drafts an economic plan. The Kake Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy was established after the logging era met a similar fate as the canning industry.

“We lost half of our community because of lack of work in our community. The younger ones with families took off to the bigger cities to find work to survive,” recalls Aceveda.

The magnitude of community out-migration has plateaued in recent years, but the community still faces formidable social and economic challenges. According to a community survey conducted in 2009, more than half of the working population between the ages of 18 and 64 is unemployed with 61 percent of surveyed families reporting at least one household member actively searching for work.

“In 2004 was when our economy really took a downturn and that was when the charter members of the Kake Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy came together to put together the first edition of the current economic planning process,” says Gary Williams.

Gary Williams takes records community feedback at the 2015 Community Economic Development

Gary Williams takes records community feedback at the 2015 Community Economic Summit

Fast forward one decade later to Kake’s 2015 Economic Summit and the process is thriving. Representatives from the tribe, city, school and village corporation joined business leaders and other residents at the school for dinner and discussion. On giant sheets of paper hung across the cafeteria, participants mapped Kake’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Participants voiced concerns and spoke passionately about building a sustainable and prosperous future for their home village.

Input from these meetings is regularly compiled into a formal plan that identifies priorities, fosters collaboration and drives an informed, community-driven development process. Over fifty projects have resulted from this process since the first plan was published in 2005.

“Right now we are working on the fourth edition of this economic plan and throughout it all, the cannery has been recognized as an integral part and priority because so much economic opportunity can and does branch off of it,” says Williams.

While Kake’s historic cannery provided community employment while in operation, a series of out-of-state companies ran the show during the first half of the last century. The majority of profit was thus siphoned out of Kake. Today, the historic site is owned in trust by the tribe for the purpose of stimulating the local economy. With more than 70 percent of Kake’s households headed by enrolled tribal members, the future of the cannery will remain a community owned asset.

Like many communities on the Inside Passage, Kake identifies tourism as an economic priority. Residents and leaders view the cannery as a unique asset that sets them and the type of tourism they want apart.

“Right from the beginning of the planning process, it was identified that in Kake we didn’t want to go too large in scale with tourism. If you go too big it destroys the character of Kake for the community and the visitors,” says Williams.

Building an authentic tourism experience for Kake’s visitors, while at the same time ensuring it respects community residents, has been central to the planning process. While a few small tourist boats visit Kake, existing opportunities for locals to capitalize on tourist dollars are limited. Located next to the main dock, the cannery will act as an iconic gateway to Kake with spaces for artisans, vendors and other service-industry entrepreneurs.

The space however, is not slated to be only a tourist attraction. The tribal transportation program will move in and light industrial options are being explored to help diversify the benefits. A section will be dedicated to Kake’s Keex’ Kwaan Dancers, room made for a community meeting space and a cultural and historical museum will span across the central floor. The idea is for Kake’s cannery to become an incubator of entrepreneurial, social and cultural ingenuity, a space for the community to gather and collaborate, share ideas and face the many challenges that come with living in a remote community head on. Proponents of the project continually stress the desire for the cannery to be “a part of the community” rather than a playground for tourists.

The stabilization stage of the project is wrapping up. The tribe is well positioned to secure funding for the final process of bringing the rooms up to code while preserving the historic structures of this historic landmark. Some space may be used as soon as next year and momentum in the community is building.

 

From a window in Kake’s Historic Cannery, Gary Williams overlooks Greg Harrison and his construction crew. This hardworking team is inventive, fearless and includes five Kake locals (including Williams).

From a window in Kake’s Historic Cannery, Gary Williams overlooks Greg Harrison and his construction crew. This hardworking team is inventive, fearless and includes five Kake locals (including Williams).

The Power of Collaboration

Returning the old cannery site to a community asset has taken dedication. This work is a promising example of economic innovation in a state replete with untapped opportunity. Alaska boasts a unique history, cultural identity and natural assets that, with hard work, can be harnessed to build a more prosperous and sustainable future for our rural communities.

This story is about more than just a restored cannery. It is the story of a community coming together to persevere through economic hardship. The community of Kake has come together to ask: What makes our community unique? How can we develop these assets and opportunities in a way that maximizes benefits both locally and long-term? And, how can we keep our families and quality of life at the forefront of every step in the process?

For Kake, achieving a long-term prosperous community vision starts with revisiting its historic roots. These roots run particularly deep for Casimero Aceveda.

“My dad worked on the cannery and when I grew up my first paying job was working on that cannery. I was a carpenter. So now, third generation coming down I got my nephew working to remodel the place! So yeah, we have pride in that cannery. The whole community has pride in that cannery, that’s where our families grew up, it’s part of us.”

 

Spotted through a hole in the cannery’s floorboards, Kake local, Tyrone Paul grins while stabilizing a wood piling.

Spotted through a hole in the cannery’s floorboards, Kake local, Tyrone Paul grins while stabilizing a wood piling.

The community’s mission to restore the historic cannery to incubate local business is made possible with the support of local, regional, state and federal partners. This includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Alaska State Historic Preservation Office, Organized Village of Kake Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Mike Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake Transportation Program, National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Development Agency, University of Oregon, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and former-Senator Begich’s office.

This long list is a testament to the collaborative effort and far-reaching impact and significance of the project. The first stage of building stabilization is set to be completed by the new year.

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