Karen Petersen gives a mill tour to graduate students. At left is Jim Harrison,
the owner of one of the larger sawmill operations on Prince of Wales Island.
When the Ketchikan Pulp Co. mill closed in 1997, it left 500 Southeast residents without jobs and the region economically depressed for years.
“Every community saw people leaving like crazy. It was really grim,” said Karen Petersen, who had moved from Ketchikan to nearby Prince of Wales Island shortly before the mill closed.
The pulp company shut down its sawmill in 1999, which greatly affected logging on Prince of Wales. The population of Thorne Bay dropped steadily from 600 to 400 as people lost work.
Extension natural resources agent Bob Gorman hosted community visioning sessions on the island, and Petersen met with him after one of the meetings, in 2002.
As part of a grant project, he asked to offer business development workshops for loggers and solve some of their problems.
While Petersen didn’t know much about forestry, she did know about managing businesses and economic development. She had managed a tourism company’s division in Ketchikan and several small businesses. She helped set up a forest products task force on the island and met with loggers to see what they needed.
Working with community partners and encouraging economic development on Prince of Wales Island has continued to be Petersen’s role with Extension 14 years later. Over the years, she has worked with the sawmill operators on alternate uses for wood waste on the island. She also has encouraged schools and municipalities to use wood heat.
For five years, Petersen has chaired the Alaska Wood Energy Development Task Group for the Alaska Energy Authority. The task group evaluates wood heat grant applications for the state. At the same time, she has worked to promote tourism on the island and organized three Prince of Wales Visitors Summits.
With Gorman’s encouragement, Petersen earned a master’s degree in rural development from UAF in 2010 and she became a community development agent in 2013. Her activities are varied.
“Everything that falls under community development is legal and kosher,” she said.
This ranges from economic development work to teaching emergency trauma technician (ETT) courses, CPR, first aid and emergency preparedness. Petersen worked with Gorman to coordinate the Alaska Wood Energy Conference in Ketchikan and Fairbanks. She is working with Jasmine Shaw and Meg Burgett to plan the next one, which is in Ketchikan in April 2017.
Petersen grew up in Kirkland, Washington, and she confounded her family by studying agronomy at Washington State University. After she graduated, she served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador.
She was the division manager for Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West in Ketchikan and managed a Waldenbooks store there before moving to Thorne Bay. She also managed and co-owned liquor stores in Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove until 2010.
In her spare time, she hosts a weekly folk radio show on Ketchikan public radio, KRBD. She has returned to South America four times as a teaching volunteer in El Salvador. Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce recognized her this spring with its President’s Award for her work on tourism promotion and with the forest products industry.
She has really enjoyed her time with Extension, she said. “I love this job and I like helping people — and that’s all I really want to do.”