Health Trust land swap explained in public meeting

Administrators for the Mental Health Trust Land Office last week finished off a series of meetings held to inform the public about an impending land exchange.

More than a decade in the making, the exchange in question would be between AMHT and the United States Forest Service, involving nearly 39,000 acres of woodlands scattered across Southeast. The meetings coincide with bills submitted at the state and federal levels last month that would move the deal forward.

Trust deputy director Wyn Menefee and senior resource manager Paul Slenkamp finished their run through affected communities, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Klawock and Petersburg, finally ending with a meeting in Wrangell last Thursday.

"In general, they've been favorable to the exchange," Menefee said of people at the various meetings. In his presentation, Menefee explained AMHT is guided by four principles: maximizing long-term revenue and productivity, protecting its physical and monetary assets from devaluation, encouraging diversity of trust land use, and accountable management.

Those ends in mind, AMHT uses the revenue gained from timber, mineral and other ventures to go toward the state's mental health programming. The Trust itself does not pay for all services, but supplements the Health and Social Services budget and provides programming grants. Regionally, it has provided $3 million in grants to efforts in Southeast Alaska since 2013.

The land exchange deal has been in the works since 2008, though the Petersburg component has been worked on since 2005. Menefee characterized the negotiations as "extensive" between AMHT and USFS, but also wider-ranging groups like the Tongass Futures Roundtable, dissolving in 2013, that had brought together representatives from industry, conservationists and government.

An agreement to initiate the swap was signed by both services in June 2015, which followed approximately eight years of negotiations that included input from a wide collection of communities, tribal organizations and environmental groups. Parcels to be transferred to the USFS in Wrangell would total 1,071 acres, including 308 acres of upland parallel to Zimovia Highway, between Heritage and Shoemaker Bay harbors; 63 acres of land near Shoemaker; and 700 acres around Pats Lake.

The exchange will involve 18,313 acres of AMHT-managed lands in all, for about 20,580 acres of "remote land" on Prince of Wales Island and at Shelter Cover from USFS. The deal will be an "equal value" exchange, to be undertaken in two stages. The areas being exchanged to AMHT have already been partially logged, are a mixture of old and young growth forest, and have some roads and infrastructure already in place.

One of the biggest changes to the plan since last year's draft was the substitution of No Name Bay on Kuiu Island for a 2,400-acre parcel near Sitka, Menafee explained. The Trust would maintain one island in the bay after the exchange, which could present opportunities for a future lodge or recreational cabin. This would factor into the aforementioned diversification of Trust land usage, he pointed out.

Put forward in the Alaska Legislature, the two state-level bills would take effect if the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange Act of 2017 was passed with similar terms by the 115th United States Congress and enacted. The exchange would proceed then if the heads of both resource management agencies approve the transfer on or before January 1, 2024.

Slenkamp explained AMHT would start designing land sales during the appraisal process that would follow as soon as the legislation passes, as well as the harvest methodology. Under the arrangement those preliminary steps are to take no longer than two years after approval.

"The time clock is fast," said Menafee. "We're trying to expedite this as much as possible."

Currently an approximate value on the area's timber is not available. As the Forest Service cannot complete the exchange without an appraisal, AMHT will survey on the ground as it needs, particularly where adjacent to private properties. Land transferred to USFS would become part of the adjacent Tongass National Forest.


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