Walker signs SB 88, Mental Health Trust land exchange

Gov. Bill Walker hold up a signed Senate Bill 88, the Alaska Mental Health Trust land exchange. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was joined in Ketchikan on Thursday by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, state Sen. Bert Stedman and state Rep. Dan Ortiz to sign a bill accepting a land trade between the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Mental Health Trust.

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The trade puts parcels of Trust land close to communities in Ketchikan and Petersburg into Forest Service ownership, in exchange for federal land that the Trust plans to log.

The Ketchikan Public Library has a huge picture window in its large activities room. The view is Deer Mountain – the iconic backdrop to Alaska’s First City.

Walker pointed to the mountain, clear against a bright blue sky, noting to the small audience gathered for the signing that they picked this spot on purpose.

“This couldn’t be a better location,” Walker said. “You’re really looking out at the fruits of your labor.”

Until Walker penned his name to Senate Bill 88, a large chunk of that mountain belonged to Alaska Mental Health Trust, which uses its land to make money for mental health services.

In Southeast, the easiest way to make money from the land is resource extraction. Logging.

But, nobody wants Deer Mountain logged.

The Trust and the U.S. Forest Service have been working on a plan for about 10 years to get Deer Mountain and other sensitive parcels close to Southeast neighborhoods exchanged for more remote Forest Service sites.

That was moving slowly, though. And so, following threats last summer from Mental Health Trust officials that they would log Deer Mountain, lawmakers sped the process up.

Walker noted that the exchange required action from the House and Senate in Washington, D.C., and Juneau.

“It took all four bodies to make this happen,” Walker said. “It’s one of those things that, everybody knew it was the right thing to do, but it just took a while to get there.”

Murkowski was on hand for the signing. She said the land trade will benefit all the stakeholders.

Mental Health Trust will be able to make money off its land; the timber industry will get a source of trees to keep them in business; and the communities of Ketchikan and Petersburg will not be harmed by logging activity close to homes.

“It’s really one of those win-win-win situations,” Murkowski said.

Stedman represents much of Southeast Alaska. He thanked Walker for his work on this bill, and other efforts for the region.

“He’s been very dogmatic in helping us create and maintain jobs in Southeast,” Stedman said. “I really appreciate that. It’s definitely made a difference. We see it all across Southeast, and we’re particularly going to see it on Prince of Wales coming up here.”

Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales will be a big beneficiary of the logging activity that the Trust now can move forward with.

The federal land that now belongs to the Trust includes parcels on Prince of Wales and in the Shelter Cove area of Revilla Island.

Ortiz noted the hard work that legislative staff members put in to getting the various bills passed, and local efforts organized by residents of Ketchikan and Petersburg.

A Ketchikan group called Save Deer Mountain was founded by Ray Troll and Bob Weinstein. Both were there to witness the successful end to their efforts.

“This is an example of how local communities, local governments, state governments and federal governments can all work together on an issue and agree,” Weinstein said. “When they do, it’s a success.”

Weinstein said it’s nice to know that the beautiful view out the library window will be preserved for future generations.

Also on Thursday, Walker signed another bill at the Ketchikan shipyard.

On the deck of the not-yet-finished state ferry Tazlina, surrounded by shipyard employees, Walker signed a bill officially naming the ferry and its sister ship, the Hubbard, which will be built by Vigor Alaska after the Tazlina is complete.