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By NICK BOWMAN
Daily News Staff Writer
A snag in Sitka that was holding up progress on a state bill to help the Alaska Mental Health Trust with its land exchange — and thereby prevent logging on Deer Mountain — has been resolved, putting the bill on track to be introduced this session.
State and federal lawmakers, at the behest of the trust, have been working on legislation that would mandate the U.S. Forest Service exchange more than 20,000 acres of rural timber land for approximately 17,000 acres of trust land located near Ketchikan, Meyers Chuck, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka and Juneau. Federal legislation was introduced in early January, but its state equivalent has yet to be filed.
With Sitka’s concerns addressed and after a state bill is filed, the trust land office — the natural resource arm of the trust authority — is planning public meetings in Ketchikan and throughout Southeast Alaska in March.
Work on the state bill was slowed for several weeks because of trust waterfront property in Katlian Bay north of Sitka. Upland property in the same area is owned by Sitka Alaska Native corporation Shee-Atika Inc., that represent a growth opportunity for the community.
“That has an ability to be future development for local Sitkans,” said Garry White of the Sitka Economic Development Association. “... We just want to keep all of our options open.”
As a result, residents were concerned that federal control over the property would lock it out of development.
“The (state) road to Katlian Bay should be bid this September,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who hit the brakes on the trust legislation in Juneau because of concern in the community. “It's in that roads to resources program, like with Shelter Cove and Vallenar Bay, and it's in the interest of the community for the state to continue to own the shoreline.”
As with Shelter Cove, the road to Katlian Bay would be unpaved — but it would be there.
The point of the land exchange is to give the trust more timber land and the Forest Service land that in almost every case sits very close to or within communities and makes up a significant part of their viewsheds. As a result, the Forest Service would manage them for recreation, not development.
“The transfer could allow us to increase recreational opportunities for forest users,” said Tongass National Forest Supervisor Earl Steward in 2015. “It also could enhance and complement the use of areas that are already being managed for the public.”
That wasn’t going to work for Katlian Bay.
“It's going to be extremely valuable property when we get a road to it,” Stedman said. “It's a lot of waterfront and it's extremely attractive waterfront for housing and-or waterfront development.”
Instead, the trust land office selected more land on rural Kuiu Island across from Kake, which sits north of Ketchikan on Kupreanof Island.
“It's not the same amount of acreage, but it's in the ballpark. It's a bit more,” said Wyn Menefee, deputy director of the trust land office. “We had to find some alternative, so I think we found it.”
Stedman said he believes the trust will end up with more timber than they had with the Katlian Bay parcel, which had been selectively logged approximately 15 years ago.
“Everyone is going to come out ahead,” Stedman said.
Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, is working to introduce a bill in the Alaska House before the end of the week, he said on Monday, noting he was “hopeful we’ll be able to get this accomplished by the end of the session.”
Working out a compromise at the state level allows changes to be made both in Juneau and in Washington, D.C., creating enough certainty to allow real work on the land exchange to begin for 2017.
“We're ready to testify to it,” Menefee said. “We're ready to work both on the federal and the state legislation moving forward.“
If federal and state legislation is signed into law, it would allow the trust and the Forest Service to skip cumbersome environmental reviews that would delay the exchange by most of a decade, according to the trust. The exchange also would eliminate the threat of logging on 900 acres of trust land across Deer Mountain and above the Mitkof Highway in Petersburg.
Menefee said the dates for public meetings to discuss the legislation have yet to be set, but they’ll likely be held in March.