Murkowski Continues To Push For AMHT Land Exchange
Secures Forest Service Commitment, Will Seek Passage of Legislation This Year
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, last week held a legislative hearing to receive testimony on her bill to accelerate a land exchange between the Alaska Mental Health Trust (Trust) and the U.S. Forest Service. Legislation is needed to accelerate the exchange, which will protect important community viewsheds, local trails, and other conservation values while expediting much-needed timber for local operators.
“This hearing brought good news for everyone, and brought us one step closer to making this exchange a reality,” Murkowski said. “From here, we will work with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to produce a final version of this bill. This exchange is one of my top priorities, and my goal is to have it signed into law before the end of this year.”
Murkowski has introduced legislation to expedite the land exchange, which would allow the Trust to raise revenues to treat mental illness in Alaska while avoiding timber sales near communities where logging is widely opposed. The Trust and the Forest Service have agreed to the exchange in concept and executed an agreement to initiate it last year. The exchange is also assumed in the administration’s proposed amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan.
“This is our chance to reach an agreement to help the Trust, to help our small timber industry, and to address the concerns of the residents in these communities. If the administration is serious about a successful transition to a young growth timber industry, my bill will help ensure it,” Murkowski said.
During the hearing, Murkowski pressed Leslie Weldon, deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service, on the administration’s position on her legislative solution, and to commit to work with her to finish the legislation this year.
“There is a very specific timeline that the Mental Health Trust has given us, and my concern is that if we need to look at some practical steps that we need to address this, whether it is changes in the scope of land surveying, ways to accelerate the environmental reviews, ways to prioritize the tracts that can be conveyed, whatever it is going to take to get this exchange moving,” Murkowski said. “That is what I need to hear from you today, from the Department, that we are going to be able to resolve this so I can provide some assurance to the people that are writing and calling me from Juneau, Petersburg, and Wrangell.”
In her prepared testimony, Weldon noted that the Department of Agriculture “supports the goal of this legislation to preserve significant natural, scenic, and recreational values in southeastern Alaska communities through a land exchange with the Alaska Mental Health Trust.” During the hearing, Weldon further committed to Murkowski that the Forest Service would be “as strategic and as efficient in moving through the process as possible.”
A number of Southeast community leaders also submitted written testimony to Murkowski expressing their strong support of her land exchange legislation:
- William Swift, Executive Director of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, wrote that, “The Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange bill is critical to maintain the current timber industry in SE Alaska by providing the Trust the ability to offer sufficient timber supply until other lands owners can place enough timber on the market during the transition to young growth harvest…I strongly urge you to pass the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange bill to support the SE economy, communities, timber industry, and the Trust in providing mental health services in SE Alaska.”
- Dan Bockhorst, Borough Manager of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, submitted a resolution adopted by the Borough, which states that, “The Ketchikan Gateway Borough strongly supports and urges passage of S. 3006, the Alaska Mental Health Land Exchange Act of 2016, which reflects the proposed land exchange between the US Forest Service and the Alaska Mental Health Trust as presented in the Agreement to Initiate dated June 30, 2015.”
- John Morrison, Executive Director of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office, wrote that, “The Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office supports the Alaska Mental Health Exchange Act of 2016…whether it be in the format of S. 3006 or S. 3203. This bill will better align land ownership patterns with the inherent missions of both the USDA Forest Service and the Alaska Mental Health Trust…The exchange positively protects interests of value to the communities, supports the economy, and helps preserve Southeast timber industry during transition to young growth, while providing revenue for Alaskan Mental Health services in Alaska.”
- Owen Graham, Executive Director of the Alaska Forest Association, wrote that, “AFA’s members need the AMHT land exchange to provide additional timber supply to help broaden, diversify and stabilize the industry’s timber supply in Southeast Alaska… Because of the failure by the Forest Service to supply timber, it is critical for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land exchange to pass immediately.”
Murkowski is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She included the Trust land exchange as Section 502 of S. 3203, her Alaska Economic Development and Access to Resources Act, and has also introduced it on a stand-alone basis as S. 3006, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange Act.