Haines Assembly asks university to press pause on 400-acre timber sale

The proposed timber sale area on a map created by Haines Planner Holly Smith. (Image courtesy Haines Borough)

The Haines Assembly is asking the University of Alaska to press pause on a proposed timber sale which has alarmed local residents.

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A couple weeks ago, the university put 400 acres of its Chilkat Peninsula land up for bid.

The timing of the sale was motivated by the threat of new local regulations.

At a recent special meeting, Assembly chambers were filled with residents who live out Mud Bay Road, south of Haines.

They were surprised that a timber sale of this this size could be allowed in their quiet neighborhood.

“It seems unbelievably clear that the intention and all the ordinance and code around it is not to have this kind of resource extraction or commercial use of the land in this area,” Heidi Robichaud said.

But that’s the problem that triggered this 400-acre proposal.

Mud Bay zoning code does not explicitly allow or restrict resource extraction.

Borough attorneys say the general rule in regulating private property is that unless something is explicitly prohibited, it’s allowed.

Since discovering this apparent oversight a few months ago, the planning commission has brainstormed what restrictions, if any, to implement in Mud Bay code.

“The public testimony by and large thought that small-scale resource extraction was fine, people selling a few trees or a few truckloads of trees to support local businesses was fine,” planning commission chair Rob Goldberg said. “People were generally opposed to large-scale resource extraction.”

But as the commission moved toward regulations on resource extraction, the Alaska Mental Health Trust and University of Alaska objected.

Both agencies own significant acreage in the Mud Bay area. And the university’s board of regents took action. The group put 400 acres of land up for timber sale.

The university uses money from sales like this to fund student scholarships.

A couple Haines residents, including Andrew Gray, spoke in support of the university’s right to profit off its land.

“If you do attempt to restrict this, I want to remind you that it would be incredibly clear message to send to the state of Alaska when we are fighting for services, to deny one of the state agencies who is attempting to profit off an allowed use of their land,” Gray said. “I don’t think that bodes well in terms of us fighting for state services.”

But Assembly members agreed with the concerns of Mud Bay residents – the timber harvest seems out of character with that area.

Assemblywoman Heather Lende is one of several people who questioned whether the borough really needs explicit restrictions on resource extraction to prevent this type of sale.

Lende pointed to other parts of code which indicate the Mud Bay service area is intended to prioritize residential over commercial uses.

“An outside entity proposing a 400-acre timber sale, I don’t know how that fits in with the intent of rural residential,” Lende said.

The Assembly wants to have a conversation with the university about all of this.

The group voted unanimously to request an in-person meeting with both the university and the mental health trust. The Assembly also is asking the university to delay awarding a contract for the timber harvest until after this discussion occurs.

The timeline right now is tight. The university is accepting comments and bids on the sale until Oct. 23.

Assembly member Tom Morphet said there might be room for negotiation. He quoted from a letter written by university land manager Christine Klein.

“‘UA advertised its Chilkat Peninsula Competitive Timber Sale to protect out interests because the Haines Borough Planning Commission was not engaging us,’” Morphet read. “To me that suggests that the university is maybe not a in a big rush to log out there, but put forward this sale to a certain extent to get our attention.”

If the university doesn’t postpone the timber sale, the Assembly may consider legal action.

The group met in executive session with the borough attorney for more than an hour to discuss the issue.

Members did not say anything publicly about what they discussed with the lawyer.