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

A state bill to allow a land exchange between Alaska Mental Health Trust and the U.S. Forest Service was approved Wednesday afternoon by the Legislature’s House Committee on Natural Resources following a public teleconference.

House Bill 155 was introduced by Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, and the Resources Committee hearing was its first hurdle.

During public testimony on the bill, about 10 people spoke to the committee, and they were pretty evenly divided in their support for the legislation, which would approve exchanging about 18,000 acres of Trust land in sensitive areas close to communities for about 20,000 acres of federal land in more remote locations of Southeast Alaska.

The Trust plans to harvest that land for timber.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis was the first to testify. He said the Borough Assembly has and continues to support the exchange, which would put Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain and some sites on nearby Gravina Island into federal ownership, thus protecting them from potential logging.

“There’s very little support in Ketchikan to log these areas, and the swap would protect these lands and provide other lands much more suitable for timber sale,” he said.

Landis said the swap is a win for the timber industry, the communities affected and Alaska Mental Health Trust.

Others who testified disagreed, though. Cheryl Fecko in Craig on Prince of Wales Island said she understands why people in Ketchikan and Petersburg oppose logging close to their communities, but she doesn’t understand why they think logging should happen near communities on POW.

“I just want the sponsors of this bill, the House Resources Committee and the people of Ketchikan and Petersburg to know that we care about the place where we live, too,” she said.  

Fecko said other options should be investigated.

One option brought up by others opposed to the trade was a federal purchase of the Trust sites, rather than an exchange. Becky Knight of Petersburg said a buyout would provide Alaska Mental Health Trust with the revenue it needs for mental health services in the state, and protect the sites close to Ketchikan and Petersburg, “while also avoiding long term and massive landscape level impacts elsewhere if the exchange is enacted.

“It is important to note that AMHT logging is governed by the antiquated Alaska Forest Resources and Practices Act, which is far weaker than federal regulations. For instance, it has no limit on the size of clear cuts,” she said.

But, City of Craig Mayor Dennis Watson said the timber jobs logging would provide on Prince of Wales Island are vital to that remote area’s economy.

“Our sawmill out here — Viking Lumber in Klawock – it’s huge. It’s a year-round payroll for a place where jobs are really scarce,” he said. “In the summer months, they have logging contractors, cutting contractors, tugboat operators, several vendors that they support out here. This is to the tune of millions.”

Other individuals testifying against the exchange were Greenpeace activist Larry Edwards of Sitka, along with Ketchikan residents Mike Sallee and Victoria McDonald. Emily Ferry of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau also spoke against the trade.

Others speaking in favor of the legislation were Bob Weinstein of Ketchikan, and Charles Wood and Cindi Lagoudakis of Petersburg.

During committee discussion of HB155, a concern expressed by lawmakers was whether the logged timber would be sold overseas.

Wyn Menefee, deputy director of Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office, told the committee that the Trust makes business decisions to maximize current and future revenue, and that includes maintaining a relationship with overseas customers.

Following approval by the Resources Committee, HB155 will head to the House Finance Committee. Similar legislation on the Senate side was introduced by Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, but SB88 remains under consideration by the Senate Resources Committee.

Federal legislation also must pass Congress for the exchange to be finalized.