Earlier this week some of Leisnoi’s top officials — CEO Von Veeh, Board President Debbie Lukin and Director of Operations Jay Baldwin — stopped by the Daily Mirror’s offices for a 30-minute conversation.
The Mirror is printing a large part of that discussion, edited for space.
Mirror: Why don’t you begin…
Veeh: Leisnoi is a village corporation and our shareholders came from Woody Island, that’s where the village originally was. Leisnoi was established during ANCSA and ANCSA basically gives these Alaska Natives the right to use their land — to use it for subsistence, to use it for cultural (purposes) but also for economics. It’s an opportunity for these corporations to provide for shareholders. Leisnoi has over 400 shareholders now. The timber operations out in Chiniak give us a chance to earn a return and pay dividends for the shareholders and to provide for a future for Leisnoi … It was a rough start for Leisnoi. We spent many, many years defending the corporation. It was challenged on many fronts, but Leisnoi prevailed and was awarded all of its lands and now has an opportunity to develop those lands.
Mirror: This week a shareholder called in and asked whether the proceeds from the Chiniak logging operations are being used for the dividend payouts?
Veeh: They are. The proceeds from the logging operations go toward paying dividends. They also go toward paying for the operations of the business. They go toward paying for the replanting of the forest, and we’re also using it to invest… We’re taking the proceeds from this and investing it and trying to build a business. Really it’s one of the first chances Leisnoi has had to do this.
Lukin: The majority of our revenues are from timber sales. So the majority of the dividend that we pay out is from timber revenues.
Mirror: You had a group of protesters in front of your shareholders information meeting…
Veeh: Honestly, no one from the protest has contacted me. I saw their signs, but I haven’t talked to any of those individuals. I take that back, I have talked to (one of the protesters) once. She came into our office and met with me for about an hour. We talked about the timber operations and Leisnoi’s future and I explained a lot of this to her. But other than that, the others out there I haven’t talked to.
Mirror: So I sense that, if it came to it, there would be a willingness to have a sit-down discussion with them…
Deborah Lukin: We’ve had meetings. Early on, when the logging first started, we had meetings with the Chiniak residents.
Mirror: And how did those meetings go?
Veeh: It was a chance basically for them to ask us what our intentions were and what we were doing and for us to talk, but, you know, I don’t know if anything substantial came out of it. But I also say that many of the Chiniak residents who were at that meeting I have talked to several times since then, and they’re pretty good about calling and asking about what’s going on. And they talk to A-1 too on a regular basis.
Mirror: What was their biggest concern voiced at those meetings?
Lukin: A particular property owner had clear-cut their property prior to our logging operations. We were logging the entire area adjacent to that person’s property and they weren’t happy with it. We weren’t leaving a buffer in that particular area.
Veeh: But representatives from A-1 and from Leisnoi met with those individuals before the cutting was made and talked about it. And as I understand it, everyone walked away from that happy.
Mirror: Clear-cutting…. Why are they using that method?
Veeh: Clear-cutting is a widely accepted method of logging... We have a short period of time to do our timber harvest and there are not a lot of trees out there. And I’m not even that comfortable with calling it clear-cutting because that has such a negative connotation. But it is an economical way of doing it. It does help us to get into that area and replant it when it’s cleared out. The state has approved our plans. We’ve had foresters look at it and they’ve told us that what we’re doing is the best way to do it. I’m comfortable with the decision that’s been made.
Mirror: Are there time restraints on the logging?
Veeh: You never know what the market’s going to do, so you want to get your logs to market … Sometime in 2015 (the logging) will probably be over on Leisnoi’s lands and Chiniak. Maybe it’ll go a little bit into 2016, but at that point our logging operations are complete. We won’t have any more timber to sell.
Lukin: There have been rumors about (Leisnoi conducting logging operations at) Termination Point and Long Island, and we’re not going to touch those areas. They’re precious to us, too, as landowners.
Mirror: How many board feet have you contracted to harvest?
Veeh: It’s roughly 100 million board feet. There’s a second phase of the contract for another 50 million, but we’re not going to get up to that, we’ll get maybe 20 million. There might be 120 million board feet (in total)
Mirror: How much timber has been harvested so far?
Veeh: So far, we’re about 75 percent done with the total harvest… By the end of 2015 it’s going to be real close to being done.
Mirror: How many trees have been planted so far?
Veeh: We’ve planted about 800,000 (Sitka spruce) seedlings and we’re going to plant another 200,000 this summer. I would say that by the time we’re done, we’ll have planted about 2 million seedlings in that area.
Mirror: What about complaints about spraying Roundup?
Veeh: They call it “Roundup,” but it’s a glyphosate. We had a harvest operation back in ’95 and ’96. They replanted then, but as I understand, the hares and voles took out our seedlings. So we needed to replant again. So it’s part of the work that we’ve been doing out there in those old timber areas; they’re really heavy with brush. I’m not even sure you could plant seedlings in those areas. So we’ve been mowing them and then spraying. Kind of a combination — some places we mow and spray some places we just mow and we don’t spray. And then we plant the seedlings and we wrap them in a netting to try to protect them from these critters. But basically we want to knock down that brush so that the planters can get in there and plant these seedlings. Also, the brush provides protection for the hares and the voles. So the less protection they have, the less likely they are to be nibbling on our seedlings.
Mirror: Who approves of the use of the herbicide?
Veeh: The state. And then it’s marked, and the applicator is licensed.
Mirror: So, of the things that you’ve read or heard, which was the most disturbing or the most far-fetched?
Veeh: I’ve heard a lot of far-fetched things. One of them was that we were spraying Agent Orange. One of them was that we were spraying Bells Flats from a crop duster.
Probably one of the most disturbing things from the current protesters is that it feels like they think we haven’t done the research or that we don’t know what we’re doing. I don’t think that’s true. We have foresters. We had a really good forester on payroll here until recently. He’s decided to move down south. We’ve worked with foresters here on this island who have lots of experience. What we’ve gathered from working with these individuals is that we’re doing the right job out there.
This is for our shareholders. This isn’t a corporation just out trying to get rich or executives trying to get rich with big bonuses. That’s not what’s happening here. When we talk about Leisnoi as a corporation, it’s not the right way to look at it. This is a group of shareholders, Alaska Natives who have been on this island way longer than any of us. They were here before there were even trees out there.
Lukin: The shareholders of this corporation have waited a long time to see any benefit from any of its resources…
Mirror: When Leisnoi put up signs that said a permit was needed to hike and fish, etc., it had a lot of people up in arms. What was the purpose of doing that?
Lukin: Land permitting is a common practice used by most Native corporations… We needed to implement some type of system, but we didn’t want it to be excessive.
Mirror: We had a shareholder call in who said, in essence, that Leisnoi shareholders should receive 1.5 acres of tax-free land. What’s your response to that?
Lukin: It’s a section in the Claims Act where corporations could provide their shareholders with acreage; it’s not something our corporation has chosen to do. In fact, we’ve surveyed our shareholders about the benefits they’d like to see, and that didn’t rise to the top of the list. Does it mean we’re not going to do that? No. It just means that it’s not our priority right now.
Mirror: What measures do you take to control the truck noise from the logging?
Veeh: We don’t control the logging operations. But as I understand, A-1 has been following the rules and there haven’t been any citations or violations .
Mirror: Are there any questions that we didn’t ask that we should have or any final comments?
Veeh: I personally think it’s pretty awesome that Leisnoi allows people to access its land. I grew up down in Idaho. Where I grew up, you knew what was private property…, what state land was, and what was federal land. It was pretty obvious, and we knew not to get on private property. There were always fences and if you crossed that fence, someone was coming out there. I think that we’ve been pretty fair, our rates are very reasonable and I think we’re being a good neighbor.