Alaska Mental Health Trust’s board of trustees voted Thursday in Anchorage to reconsider an August decision to potentially move forward with logging Deer Mountain and a section of land above homes in Petersburg, and then the board delayed a final decision until the end of January.
Since late August, many residents in Ketchikan, Saxman and Petersburg have had Jan. 15 on their minds. That was the deadline that the Alaska Mental Health Trust board set for Congress to approve a land exchange bill.
That exchange trades parts of Deer Mountain and land in Petersburg now owned by Mental Health for equivalent parcels of federally owned land on Prince of Wales Island and in the Shelter Cove area. If the exchange failed to pass by Jan. 15th, that August vote called for Mental Health to move forward with logging the sites in Ketchikan and Petersburg.
That vote wasn’t well advertised, and came as a big surprise to many community members. Groups organized in opposition to logging and to the process the Trust used leading to the vote. The opposition, and a mountain-sized amount of public comment, inspired the board’s reconsideration.
Delaying the final decision wasn’t on the trustees’ meeting agenda, but Trust Land Office Executive Director John Morrison says there’s a lot of written public input for trustees to read.
“I think at this point, our recommendation is to potentially give the trustees a little more time to consider the comments you received recently before you decide which way you’d like to go on these two issues,” he said.
The trustees unanimously agreed to reconsider both the Deer Mountain and Petersburg logging votes, and then postpone final action until the next regular board of trustees meeting, which is Jan. 25 and 26.
Morrison told the board that his office is hearing “very optimistic” predictions that the land exchange will be approved by Congress in the upcoming session. In that case, there would be no need to take any action on logging the controversial sites.
In addition to the written comments that trustees received prior to the meeting, some Ketchikan and Petersburg residents chose to call in with comments on the first day of the board’s two-day meeting. None spoke in favor of logging the parcels close to their homes.
Marta Poore in Ketchikan says there already have been landslides on Deer Mountain, and people who live near it are worried that logging would lead to more slides, and harming the water supply for the community of Saxman.
There’s also a popular trail on Deer Mountain.
“And I hike that trail weekly during the summer, as do many locals and tourists,” she said. “So, to do logging in there would devastate community mood, certainly quality of life.”
Suzanne Wood in Petersburg is co-founder of the Mitkof Island Homeowners Association. She told the trustees that the group of 95 homeowners has actively supported the federal land exchange for the past 11 years, in order to avoid logging the site above their homes. She says group members are concerned about further destabilizing the steep hillside.
“There have now been nine natural landslides above our homes on Mitkof Highway and the Tyee hydroelectric utility corridor, closing the highway to through traffic, damaging residential property and infrastructure; and disrupting residential utility service,” she said.
Wood says the association never wanted to litigate over this issue, but any action toward logging that site would lead to a lawsuit.
Becky Knight in Petersburg says logging should be removed from consideration, whether it’s the sensitive parcels near communities or the exchange lands on POW and in Shelter Cove. She says a federal buyout of the Trust land is a preferable option.
Knight says that logging the controversial sites was never a serious threat. She says the trust already started negotiating with timber industry groups to log the exchange land.
“So why did they issue their threat? It appears that what (the AMHT) were really after was a stampede of support to seal the deal for their legislation,” she said.
Marvin Scott in Ketchikan says the timber sales in Petersburg and Ketchikan are not in the best financial interest of the Trust, because of the increased liability risk.
Scott says he understands Trust officials have said that a risk assessment has been completed, but, “I wonder if a geotechnical survey has been conducted, but even then one should realize that logging on steep slopes above residential development poses a very realistic liability. No one can guarantee landslides won’t occur on a steep slope, even if light selective logging occurs. The fact that trees would be taken, and a subsequent landslide happens, AMHT is then liable.”
Scott says a landslide could lead to damages exceeding $100 million, which makes the proposed $2 million profit from logging Deer Mountain not worth the risk.
Bob Weinstein in Ketchikan urged trustees to seriously consider a suggested amended motion that would add a land sale as an option to logging.
“Doing that will get the public in Ketchikan behind your goal of both the exchange legislation as your primary goal, and, secondary, an effort to retain Deer Mountain as it is,” he said. “It will also allow for the beginning of whatever processes need to take place regarding what the purchase process and related matters are.”
Because the trustees delayed a decision on logging, they didn’t vote on that motion, but it was briefly discussed. Morrison told trustees that it was a way to officially affirm that the Trust Land Office would be open to options if the land exchange doesn’t pass.