Mental Health Trust, Forest Service Look to Land Swap

The Alaska Mental Health Trust hopes to swap thousands of acres of land with the U.S. Forest Service, and it’s hoping to do so with the blessing of a regional group of Tongass National Forest stakeholders.

The Trust presented its plan to the Tongass Futures Roundtable – a group of stakeholders representing communities, organizations and tribal governments throughout Southeast Alaska.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust owns more than 60,000 acres of land in Southeast, not counting a massive tract on Icy Cape. It’s required by law to get the most value it can out of its lands, and then use the money to support Alaskans with mental illnesses. Often times, getting value out of the land means logging it.

But much of the Trust’s land is situated near populated areas in Southeast Alaska, which makes it unsuitable for logging because it would disrupt viewsheds or even pose safety risks. Residents in Petersburg’s Mitkof Highway Homeowners Association are worried that logging of mental health trust lands near the road could accelerate land slide activity.

“We recognize the concerns that the communities in Southeast Alaska have about harvesting timber on these lands,” said Greg Jones, executive director of the Trust Land Office, which has been around since 1994. He says since then they’ve been trying to figure out how to meet their requirement to get value from the land while still respecting community uses and the land’s proximity to people’s backyards.

“What’s gelled over the last five years has been a proposal to trade the lands with the Forest Service for other lands that could be logged without having an impact on the major communities that are currently backed by those lands,” he said.

The Mental Health Trust is offering tens of thousands of acres to the Forest Service. In Sitka, that includes a huge parcel along Katlian Bay, and a parcel near Mt. Verstovia in Sitka. More tracts are near Ketchikan, both north of town and on Gravina Island. The Mitkof Highway tract near Petersburg would also be under Forest Service control, as would a narrower tract south of Wrangell. Other possibilities include lands near Skagway, Juneau and Meyers Chuck.

The proposal was met with interested caution at Tuesday’s meeting of the Tongass Futures Roundtable. Some said the idea of a land swap makes perfect sense. Others said they felt the same way, but worried about what would happen to the land the Trust received: How would it be logged? Would the jobs be sustainable?

Lindsey Ketchel is executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, and a member of the roundtable. She says her organization is excited to see what’s being put on the table.

“I feel that the urban communities that were identified clearly have areas that don’t make sense to log, so let’s pull ourselves out of there,” Ketchel said. “But I’m also equally concerned to figure out where will that solution set be, because most likely it will be on Prince of Wales (Island) and we really have to find that balance there.”

Ketchell says it’s important to look at the volume of logging that’s already occurred on Prince of Wales Island.

“Can we really create some timber opportunities there? I described value-added options versus wholesale export,” she said. “Can we create some jobs and can we spread it around where the least ecologically challenging areas. Is there some solution space there? I’m encouraged that we’re going to be searching for that solution here.”

The plan is to handle the swap at the administrative level – relatively faster than going through Congress – but even then, Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole says it’s a 64-step process. At the moment, there’s no formal proposal, and the Forest Service hasn’t come up with lands it would be willing to exchange with the Trust. In fact, Cole says the first step is simply to agree to initiate the process.

Jones noted the length of the process.

“It would be blindingly fast if it were done in two and a half years,” he said. “More likely it will take three to five years to get it completed.”

So it probably won’t happen quickly, but Jones says it will happen out in the open. That’s why he’s seeking the blessing of the Tongass Futures Roundtable.

“It’s going to be a public process,” he said. “So we’re going to involve all the communities that we impact. The roundtable offers an opportunity to have a single voice representing those communities, if the communities want it. In addition to the roundtable, we will be talking to each of the communities individually.”

Those individual meetings could be important to communities like Wrangell and Petersburg, whose leaders are among those who withdrew their membership in the roundtable earlier this year.

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