PALMER -- A new state forest pushed by the Parnell administration for the Susitna Valley gained traction this week with a hard-won vote in support from the Mat-Su Borough Assembly.
The governor last year proposed two pieces of legislation that would create the 686,800-acre Susitna State Forest, saying it would provide a boost for local sawmill and commercial firewood operations.
But the legislation foundered amid concerns from the Mat-Su delegation, state officials say. Legislators and local officials expressed concerns that a state forest would limit public access and room for the communities of Houston and Willow to grow.
In response, state foresters recently removed four parcels east of the Parks Highway from the proposed forest, removing about 70,000 acres. They contend that existing public uses -- snowmachining, four-wheeling, dog mushing -- won't be threatened by a forest designation but could benefit from new roads.
The Mat-Su Assembly on Tuesday night voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution supporting the creation of the Susitna forest.
Darcie Salmon was the lone vote against.
Salmon, a Wasilla real-estate agent, said he cast the same vote when the forest came before the Assembly twice before. Both times, the group voted it down, but the makeup of the Assembly has changed since then.
"I've never been in favor," Salmon said. "They never gave justifiable reasons to me as to why we would lay another level of government over an already protected asset."
Top state forestry officials celebrated the vote as one that might sway previously reluctant members of the Mat-Su delegation.
"Last night was a watershed night," Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch told the state Board of Forestry, meeting this week in Juneau. Maisch attended the Assembly meeting in Palmer the night before and flew back for the board meeting, missing the first few hours.
The push for a new state forest is part of a broader effort by the Parnell Administration to open the remote lands west of the Susitna River to resource development. The state released a reconnaissance study in January for five possible road routes to coal and mineral deposits in the western Susitna Valley.
State officials say the new state forest would provide predictability by giving DNR the ability to make timber production the priority.
The area proposed for the Susitna forest are already designated for forestry by state Department of Natural Resources planning documents but those could be changed in the future, officials say.
"The major change that we're looking at is it creates an environment that businesses can invest in knowing there's going to be a resource that's available for the future," Mat-Su area forester Rick Jandreau said.
The Susitna forest would be made up of nearly 30 separate parcels from the west side of Cook Inlet up nearly to Petersville, and west of the Parks Highway through Skwenta and out to Yentna and the base of the Alaska Range.
Stands of birch mixed with some spruce and cottonwood dominate the area.
Existing timber sales largely feed commercial firewood operations and some small sawmills that make furniture or flooring, Jandreau said.
But the future holds prospects for biomass energy companies and perhaps larger sawmills, he said.
Superior Pellet Fuels in 2006 decided not to build its plant in the Mat-Su because of limited timber sales and road access into the forest, according to Chad Schumacher, the company's general manager. Superior instead set up shop in North Pole.
"One of the key factors regarding the Susitna State Forest is development of access," Schumacher said in an interview Wednesday. "That infrastructure would be incredible for an industry such as ours."
Access to the forest has also been a longstanding concern for recreational users.
Some worried the state didn't support additional access to the area, especially across the Little Susitna River, according to the minutes of a Board of Forestry meeting in November. In response, the state is building a pioneer winter road across the Little Su to the Fish Creek area, officials say.
If the Legislature approves the forest, state foresters will have three years to write a management plan. Public comment will be part of that process, they say.
The House Resources Committee is waiting to hear the House version of the bill for a third time, Maisch told the board Wednesday. The Mat-Su delegation wanted to see how the borough Assembly voted.
The Senate version may get a hearing in Resources Friday, he said. "There's still time to actually have this bill happen. It's going to take a lot of work."
Alaska's existing state forests occupy about 2 percent of state lands: the 1.8 million-acre Tanana Valley State Forest; the 286,000-acre Haines State Forest; and the 48,472-acre Southeast State Forest, mostly on Prince of Wales Island, designated by the Legislature in 2010.
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.
Proposed Susitna Valley State Forest map
By ZAZ HOLLANDER