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Walker signs two bills in Ketchikan: Governor approves Deer Mt. land exchange and AMHS ship naming

Daily News Staff Writer

Gov. Bill Walker was back in Ketchikan on Thursday, signing two bills into law, one of which Sen. Lisa Murkowski excitedly called “a win-win-win situation!”

The governor, who was in town on Saturday for the Blueberry Arts Festival, was already back on Thursday with a whirlwind of handshakes, photo-ops and signatures.

One of those signatures was for a land-exchange bill sponsored by both of Ketchikan’s state legislators — Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

Later that same day, the governor, donning a hard hat, also signed legislation naming the newest vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway System, Tazlina and Hubbard, respectively.

The land exchange bill was signed at Ketchikan Public Library, where, on a clear day with blue skies, the entirety of Deer Mountain was in view behind the podium with light streaming in from the large paneled glass window onto the two dozen or so attendees.

That view seemed to be in jeopardy not too long ago.

Prior to Thursday’s signing, the Alaska Mental Health Trust owned 17,000 acres of land around Southeast Alaska — a chunk of which is on Deer Mountain. The trust, which had long sought the land trade in order to earn revenue from timber operations on less-sensitive lands, had said in 2016 that it would sign contracts to log a portion of Deer Mountain and another viewshed near Petersburg if Congress didn’t approve legislation enabling the trade by a certain date.

The trust announcement drew sharp criticism in Ketchikan and Petersburg, but also generated legislative momentum.

The federal government approved the landswap in May, spurred on by legislators like Murkowski. Also in May, the Alaska Legislature gave final passage to Senate Bill 88, which gave the state’s approval for the land trade. SB 88, which Walker signed Thursday, gave the trust roughly 20,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in exchange for tracts of land the trust previously held

Walker praised the bill as a win for all sides, explaining that the Alaska Mental Health Trust will be able to generate money to provide mental health services in Alaska, while protecting scenic areas like Deer Mountain.

“It really is a win-win for everybody,” Walker said. “It’s very broad-based the benefits that are going to come from (this bill).”

“It’s one of those things that everyone knew was the right thing to do,” but just took a while to get there,” Walker added.

Walker attributed much of the success for the project to individuals like Stedman, Ortiz and Murkowski — those on the legislative front.

Murkowski, standing with the towering figure of Deer Mountain in the foreground, praised those who helped make the swap possible. She noted just how crucial this bill is for those suffering from mental health issues in Alaska.

“This is an opportunity to help the Alaska Mental Health Trust as they seek to provide for the most vulnerable in our state,” Murkowski said. “Because of this exchange, we have protected viewshed, we have allowed for support for our timber industry because of the exchange, and again, provided a valuable resource to the Alaska Mental Health Trust.”

After signing SB 88, Walker was again on the move, this time heading to the Ketchikan Shipyard. Walker officially christened Tazlina and Hubbard, the two newest ships joining the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Dozens of Vigor Alaska employees joined Walker and other legislators as they stood on what would eventually be the deck of the Tazlina. The large ship was enclosed in the shipyard’s massive assembly hall. Behind an American flag, a desk was set up for the governor to sign the legislation.

Both Stedman and Ortiz spoke, praising Walker for his help. Stedman thanked Walker for his commitment to the economy and for urged more ships in the future saying, “this is just the beginning.”

Ortiz also spoke about how big of a deal these new ships are for both Ketchikan and Alaska as a whole.

“It is a great day for the Alaska Marine Highway System,” Ortiz said. “This is symbolic of what support (the governor) has shown to the entire system.”

After the final signing, Walker called on Vigor employees to file in behind him for a group photo. He emphasized that those who put on hard hats every day, and not just for a photo-op, are the ones who truly made these ships a reality.

And with the stoke of a pen, it was official, they were named. “It has a name,” Walker said to raucous applause.