Mental Health Trust Authority optimistic about timber land swap
JUNEAU — Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority land managers are optimistic Congress will approve a long-sought swap of Southeast timberland parcels with the U.S. Forest Service.
Trust Land Office Executive Director John Morrison told the authority board of trustees at their Thursday afternoon meeting in Juneau that getting the land exchange done is one of his agency’s top priorities.
The Trust Land Office manages roughly 1 million acres of land across Alaska for resource and real estate development, the proceeds of which go to fund the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s work to benefit Alaskans with mental health and addiction challenges.
Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan filed identical bills in the House and Senate respectively on Jan. 12 directing the Forest Service to execute the land exchange with the Trust Land Office.
The legislation would transfer 17,341 acres of trust-owned forestlands — much of it adjacent to the communities of Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Sitka — to the Forest Service for inclusion in the Tongass National Forest.
In return, the trust would get 20,580 acres of harvestable timber parcels on Prince of Wales Island and remote areas of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The proposal is for lands of equal value, thus creating the difference in acreage.
“As we sit here, we have every indication from the congressional delegation that we are on track for smooth passage of these bills,” Morrison said to the trustees.
The Forest Service and the Trust Land Office have generally agreed on the deal, which could be done administratively without legislation, and it is assumed in the service’s latest Tongass Land Management Plan. However, the sides have been working on it for years without resolution.
Morrison said the legislative route is simply a more efficient process.
If completed, it would allow the Trust Land Office to fulfill its obligation to maximize land revenues for benefit of the trust without logging areas within view of the communities, he has said.
The trust first proposed the swap in 2007.
It could hold timber sales to log the areas it currently owns, but has held back on the hope the swap would be completed, according to Morrison.
In a previous interview with the Journal, he said foresters in his office estimate the value of the timber on its lands to be exchanged at about $60 million.
Reaction from Southeast residents has been mixed, with residents in the communities adjacent to the current trust parcels generally supporting the plan based on written comments submitted to the trust.
Sen. Sullivan called the bills a “common sense solution” to the issue in a release announcing the legislation.
Young and Murkowski noted it would also provide timber to Southeast mills that for years have been struggling to find areas to harvest as federal timber sale offerings on Tongass lands have dwindled.
Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said the land swap legislation is one of her top priorities as Congress begins its work with a new presidential administration.
The trust shifted its focus to the legislative route last May, Morison said, when Murkowski first introduced a similar bill to the Senate. That bill was later part of an omnibus lands package included in her national energy reform legislation that stalled in House-Senate conference negotiations last December at the end of the previous Congress.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].