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By Dan Rudy 

Southeast timberlands exchange in the works

 

Submitted Photo

This map of Wrangell shows the Alaska Mental Health Trust parcels being considered for exchange in an upcoming land swap with the United States Forest Service. The 1,104 acres being considered in Wrangell are a part of the broader 38,900-acre proposal between the two agencies that will affect Southeast.

An agreement is currently being worked out between the Alaska Mental Health Trust (AMHT) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) that could see the transfer of between 18,000 and 20,900 acres of state and federal lands.

"I've been working on this personally for seven years," said Paul Slenkamp, resource manager for the AMHT Land Office. He is currently working with Forrest Cole, USFS forest supervisor for the Tongass National Forest.

"We've been moving through this administrative exchange over the last couple of years," Slenkamp explained.

At the moment, the two parties are engaged in a lengthy feasibility study, making sure the exchange is value-for-value and would be in the best interests of the public, fitting in to the two agencies' mission goals.

For AMHT, Slenkamp explained, this means maximizing funds for the Trust through primarily timber and minerals development.

For USFS, the exchanged lands would become integrated into its Tongass National Forest system, with parcels taking on the usage attributes of adjacent parklands.

AMHT Authority is a public corporation set up to assist the state in funding its mental health program. In particular, it manages a fund benefitting Alaskans with mental illness, development disabilities, chronic alcoholism, Alzheimer's and dementia.

The AMHT was founded by Congress in 1956, giving the then-territory of Alaska a million acres of federal land to use for revenue generation that would support mental health services there. Assets include timber, coal, oil, gas and minerals which are managed by the Trust Land Office, a unit within the Department of Natural Resources.

Since its establishment the Trust's resource development has brought $55 million to the fund.

The Trust lands to be exchanged are largely old-growth forest, found around seven Southeast communities. On the island of Wrangell, four sections along Zimovia Highway would be turned over to the United States Forestry Service, about 1,104 acres in all.

The parcels around Wrangell include 330 acres of the upland strips of forest adjacent to USFS lands running parallel to Zimovia Highway between Heritage and Shoemaker harbors, 63 acres of land near Shoemaker and 711 acres around Pats Lake and Creek.

Other communities included in the exchange would be Petersburg, Ketchikan, Meyers Chuck, Juneau and Sitka. Tentatively, the Trust is looking at relinquishing a total of 18,066 acres in exchange for 20,920 acres of federal lands around Shelter Cove, Naukati, Hollis and Gravina/Niblack.

Areas in North and West Naukati and Gravina/Niblack would have also been special interest areas set aside for the now-defunct Tongass Futures Roundtable.

Slenkamp hopes to have an agreement reached before the coming spring to initiate the exchange. After acreages and details are agreed upon, the plan would then move into an appraisal process set forth in federal land exchange statutes.

"There's a long list of criteria," he explained. For example, there must be no lingering contaminants or undue encumbrances to managing the lands being exchanged. A full appraisal of the lands and resources will be conducted, including surveying. In addition, the evaluation requires consultation with a federal appraiser and must comply with terms of the National Environmental Protection Act.

"It's a very formal process," said Slenkamp. It's also a lengthy one, expected to take an additional two years before any land is conveyed. Public input on the exchange would also be gathered during the process.

"It's an interesting project," he noted, one he expects will bring benefits to the Forest Service and its users, to beneficiaries of the Trust, and to the region's industrial capabilities.

 

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