Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain on a clear winter day. (KRBD photo by Leila Kheiry)

Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office representatives hope to recruit local governments and individual residents to continue pushing state and federal lawmakers to approve a pending land exchange.

The exchange has been in the works for about a decade. It would transfer about 18,000 acres of Trust land parcels that are close to Alaska communities to U.S. Forest Service ownership. Those parcels include Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain and a forested slope above homes in Petersburg.

An announcement last summer that the Trust Land Office planned to log those sites if the exchange didn’t pass was met with significant community condemnation. The TLO backed off of those plans late last year.

Through the exchange, the Trust would receive about 20,000 acres of Forest Service land for timber harvest. Those parcels are in more remote areas, so logging the sites would be less controversial.

During a recent Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meeting, Trust Land Office Executive Director John Morrison and Senior Resource Manager Paul Slenkamp gave an update on the exchange process.

Slenkamp said if and when the exchange is approved by Congress and the Alaska Legislature, it will happen in two phases.

“It’ll be a basically 2,400 acre phase that the Forest Service will be mandated to complete within one year, and the rest will hopefully be conveyed within a two-year period of time,” he said. “And the reason for this is to provide a timber base for Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island as quickly as possible.”

Viking Lumber is one of the last sawmills in the region. Slenkamp said the exchange will help protect some of the remaining timber jobs in Southeast Alaska.

“The Forest Service’s timber supply continues to be constrained,” he said. “As a result of this our remaining industry are getting more and more endangered of going out of business for lack of product.”

Proceeds from logging the TLO sites are used to pay for mental health services in Alaska.

Slenkamp gave an update on each of the bills moving through Congress and the Legislature. On the federal side, there’s not yet been a hearing scheduled for the Senate version of the bill, but he said the House version will have its first hearing in the next couple of weeks.

The exchange also must be approved by the Alaska Legislature, and there are state House and Senate versions of the exchange sponsored by Rep. Dan Ortiz and Sen. Bert Stedman, respectively. Those pieces of legislation are still in committee.  

Slenkamp said community support of the bills will help the exchange continue to move forward.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly and the Ketchikan City Council already have approved various resolutions in support of the land exchange. Assembly Member Glen Thompson asked whether another resolution was needed.

Morrison said more support is always appreciated.

“It never hurts to have an additional resolution of support,” he said. “I would say that since the previous resolutions of support, we do have new legislation. It is new legislation even if the language is identical or similar, so we would certainly support that.”

Previous federal land exchange legislation didn’t pass before Congress adjourned, so the bills had to be reintroduced at the start of this year.

Morrison and Slenkamp also hosted an informational meeting in Ketchikan to update the public and recruit supporters of the exchange. Similar events are planned in other Southeast communities through the end of March.

A Petersburg meeting was set for Wednesday; other meetings are scheduled in Sitka on March 28, Juneau on March 29, and Klawock on March 30.