As an Alaskan, I am flattered this year's Capitol Christmas tree comes from our own Chugach National Forest. Selected by the U.S. Forest Service for its perfect, conical shape and evenly dispersed branches, the 74-foot Lutz spruce is a statuesque symbol, for sure. But it symbolizes much more than holiday cheer.
The handsome tree on the West Lawn was cut, ironically, from a forest that bans timber harvest.
That's due to the roadless rule, which prohibits construction of new roads in harvest areas and makes most federal land inaccessible to a timber industry that, like our other responsible resource industries, helped build infrastructure and industry in our state. Yet, to reach this special tree, the Forest Service built a "path" (as a road would be illegal), and authorized cutting down additional trees in its way. This was all made possible by a categorical exclusion to bypass the National Environmental Policy Act, which would have included a standard environmental impact statement. They are tedious and inexpedient, we know.
The Chugach, the second largest in the U.S., has a zero Allowable Sale Quantity as part of its management plan. Not one tree can be cut for commercial use. Not harvesting trees may be included in the mission of the National Park Service, but the Forest Service was established in 1905 "with a sacred mission to provide wood to the world." Still, Washington has effectively shut down our timber industry on federal lands statewide, with the exception of small timber operations in Southeast, Southcentral and Interior Alaska.
I respectfully suggest the Forest Service staff resources devoted to the search for this year's Capital Christmas tree could have been better spent studying sustainable timber harvest in our forests. Alaska has well over 100 million acres of conservation lands including national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas which will be preserved for eternity.
Alaska's statehood victory came with the responsibility to develop our abundant resources, so that we might become a self-sufficient and vibrant economy. But over the years, despite model management and safety records, we have seen ever more restrictions placed on statewide resource development. Natural resources equal opportunities for Alaskans, but our forests have become inaccessible for commercial use by Alaskans, and jobs and futures have been jeopardized.
Furthermore, I find it hypocritical of the federal government to build a road to access a single tree, but not allow us to build a state-funded road that would give rural Alaskans access to emergency medical care.
Of course, I am referring to the access road between King Cove and Cold Bay – the only community in the region with an airport that provides a reliable link between the East Aleutians and Anchorage. Currently, the only way out of King Cove during inclement weather is via evacuation in a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter originating from Kodiak Island, over 500 miles away. Still, the U.S. Interior Department has determined an 11-mile stretch of gravel would cause irreparable harm to species in the intersecting wildlife refuge, and refuses to negotiate with the state of Alaska, even for fair land exchange.
Mr. President, as proud as we all are of the quality of Alaska's resources and its wildlife, we must ask: why the double standards?
Your administration was willing to overlook environmental standards in the Chugach to allow the harvest of the Capitol Christmas tree, but is unwilling to prioritize public health and safety over speculative environmental impact to local waterfowl in the Aleutian Islands.
The Capitol Christmas tree is a fine symbol of federal double standards – the government's override of its own laws as soon as it is inconvenienced over so much as a Christmas tree.
Mr. President, as you admire "The People's Tree" on the West Lawn this Christmas, I ask that you consider the people of Southeast Alaska whose livelihoods depend on a sustainable timber industry. I ask you to consider the people of King Cove, whose lives depend an emergency access road. Then I ask you to reconsider federal policies that keep those livelihoods and lives at risk.
Finally, Mr. President, in exchange for this "Gift from the Great Land," I ask you to recognize the injustice – not merely inconvenience – of these policies, and give Alaskans a Christmas gift: reasonable access to our own land.
Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) is chair of the Alaska State Senate Resources Committee.