Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism

May 17, 2017

What happens to a town when a key industry collapses?

Sometimes it dies. But sometimes it finds a way to reinvent itself.

Case in point: Ketchikan, Alaska, where the demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation.

Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber have now turned to jobs in tourism.

It’s an identity shift that makes the city far different from what it was in the logging heyday.

“It was this boomtown!” says longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins. “It was just a crazy, wild frontier place.”

Now, it’s a tourism magnet. Ketchikan is expecting 1 million visitors this summer. They’ll flow into town off as many as six giant cruise ships a day.

To give a sense of scale, figure that the borough of Ketchikan is home to about 13,000 people. In just one day, Ketchikan may see 13,000 cruise ship visitors.

“We’ll double in population for eight hours,” says Harbormaster Dave Dixon as he waits dockside for the morning’s first arrival.

Each season, he braces for the tourists’ questions that might come his way:

“Can we see polar bears here?” (Um, no, that would be more than 1,000 miles away, in the Arctic.)

And this humdinger: “Is Alaska part of the United States?” (Well, yes, since it became a state in 1959.)

“Kind of unexpected that someone would ask me that,” Dixon says with a chuckle, noting that he’s pretty sure the question came from an American. “Maybe geography class was not their high point.”

Ketchikan sits on an island at the southernmost end of southeast Alaska, a prime spot for cruise ships navigating Alaska’s Inside Passage. The landscape is spectacular: snow-capped mountains, glaciers descending into narrow fjords, and all around, the dense Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres (bigger than West Virginia), the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S.

For many decades, the spruce, hemlock and cedar trees of the Tongass have also been a source of timber for the logging industry. At its peak, logging camps dotted the islands of southeast Alaska, and pulp mills were robust economic drivers of the region.

One by one, those pulp mills shut down, faced with global competition, new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations.

Ketchikan’s pulp mill was the last one still operating in Alaska when it shut down in 1997. Hundreds of good-paying jobs and the businesses that supported them went with it.

For some, it’s been an uncomfortable transition. “We don’t know who we are anymore,” Collins says. “We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. We had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They’re all gone.”

What’s replaced them? Lots of jewelry and watch stores, some of them owned by the cruise ship companies themselves. Also, souvenir and gift shops, as well as local tour operations.

The newer businesses provide seasonal retail work, but it’s nowhere near as well paid as the old jobs: Those were year-round, “family-sustaining jobs,” Collins explains.

Now, he says, at the end of September, “within a few day period, the town will be boarded up downtown. Literally, most of the businesses will be closed. And then the people will leave town.” The workers will head on to their winter seasonal work, maybe in Colorado or the Caribbean.

Collins has a long view of the logging industry, and of Ketchikan.

Some of his earliest memories are of the nearby logging camp where he lived with his family in the late 1960s.

They moved to Ketchikan when he was 9. It was the heyday of timber, and Collins knew that a good job in the industry would be waiting for him after high school.

It was. He started working on tugboats, bringing supplies to the logging camps and the Ketchikan pulp mill, and eventually he worked his way up to captain,

When the pulp mill shut down in ’97, “it was crazy,” Collins says. “People were leaving town as fast as they could. Property values plummeted. I remember foreclosures, auctions at the courthouse, people losing everything, not being able to get a job, and selling their houses and leaving town.”

The company Collins worked for was in charge of cleaning out the logging camps and the pulp mill, and shutting them down.

“I ended up being the last employee, and I shut the lights out, ” he says. “Left the office, turned out the lights and went home, started my new job.”

Collins is now a cruise ship pilot, steering those giant tour vessels into Ketchikan.

He loves his work, but still, he says, “I miss tugboats. Tugboater at heart.”

Back on the Ketchikan dock, Harbormaster Dave Dixon spies the morning’s first arrival hoving into port.

“Yep! There they are,” he says, as he watches Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship sidle to the dock, with some 2,000 passengers aboard.

The ship looks like a floating skyscraper, the length of three football fields.

When the gangplank is lowered, the tourists march ashore and find a gaggle of tour operators waiting to entice them with local offerings:

“The world’s largest totem poles!”

“An all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feast!”

“Active eagle nests, seals, a chance for killer whales and humpbacks!”

And if the tourists want a theatrical taste of the industry that used to fuel Ketchikan, they can go watch timber sports at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, where burly competitors in flannel shirts and suspenders chop stumps, saw logs, and heave axes at a bullseye.

The “Our Land” series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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