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Sonoran Institute findings mirrored in Maine
By Andy Kekacs


April 15, 2005

Visiting Southeast Alaska for the first time this month, I was struck by the similarities with the place I know best: Maine.

Yes, we have a bit more sunshine back home, but the scenery here is even more breathtaking. You have ravenous brown bears, and we have tourists from New Jersey - both about equally dangerous.

But the economy is where the similarities are most obvious. Rural communities in Southeast Alaska and Maine depend heavily on forestry, fishing and tourism for survival. In both places, changes in the global marketplace have gutted some traditional industries and left long-time residents struggling to make ends meet.

That's why I was so interested in the analysis of regional economic change done by the Sonoran Institute. The institute found that protected lands have been a prime generator of jobs and wealth in the West, bringing in new service-sector jobs and helping to diversify stagnant economies that were once based on mining, logging and other extractive industries.

The willingness to change and grow is an essential part of the equation. Throughout the region, areas that continued to rely solely on their "traditional" industries had the slowest rates of economic growth.

I've seen the same thing in rural New England over the past 20 years. Manufacturing jobs have been evaporating from the Maine economy faster than summer rain on hot asphalt. The number of factory jobs in the state peaked in 1968, and except for a brief period in the late 1970s has trended downward ever since.

Forest products, textiles, shoes and a host of other traditional industries have been devastated by foreign competition. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the wood products and papermaking sector of the Maine economy lost about 7,700 jobs between 1993 and 2001.

In 2003 alone, there were 15 paper industry layoff announcements by nine different companies. The layoffs were prompted not by environmental regulations, but by changes in the global marketplace which make it increasingly hard for Maine mills to compete.

You'd expect that to be a recipe for economic disaster, but Maine has actually done fairly well. Why? The job loss has been offset by growth in professional and business services, education, health services, and the recreation and hospitality sectors. According to the Maine Department of Labor, the number of service-sector jobs in the state increased 24.3 percent from 1990-2003, wiping out a 22.7 percent loss on the goods-producing side of the economy.

That's exactly what the Sonoran Institute found in its analysis of data from Western states. Throughout the region, jobs and income are being generated not in the traditional industries, but in the service and professional sectors.

The cruise ships that line the docks in Juneau each summer are the most obvious sign of this new source of wealth. But charter captains, guides, shopkeepers and restaurateurs throughout the region know how important the cash from out-of-state visitors has become.

The Sonoran research proves that Southeast Alaskans can build a healthy economy while protecting the wild places that are so important to traditional ways of life. It's both a winning economic strategy and the best way to preserve Alaskans' unique relationship with this awe-inspiring place.


Note: Andy Kekacs has been writing about business and environmental issues in Maine for almost 20 years. He was a senior writer for the Bangor Daily News and founding publisher of Maine Woodsman, an independent magazine that covered economic, environmental and social changes in the North Woods.



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