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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

Communities that value nearby Trust land have had years to secure community interest in it

By Russ Webb


September 01, 2016
Thursday PM

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority recently took the first step to authorize sale of timber on land near Ketchikan and Petersburg. This action has generated some strong emotions reflected in statements of support, objection, and even some accusations and threats. Here are the facts.

The Trust exists to help ensure the state has a comprehensive mental health program. It has a duty to enhance and protect the value of its trust. Beneficiaries include Alaskans with mental illness, developmental disabilities, substance use disorders, Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, and traumatic brain injuries. Beneficiaries are members of every community and nearly every family in our state.

Trust income comes from two sources: cash investments and the sale and development of resources from Trust land. The Trust provides $20 million annually to state and local government agencies, nonprofits, providers, and individuals to improve the lives and circumstances of beneficiaries. This is far less than is requested and far, far less than is needed.

Much of the Trust's income from its land has come from the sale of timber - $43 million over the last 20 years. The Trust's remaining marketable timber is on land near communities in Southeast and valued by those communities for public purposes.

To accommodate community interests, the Trust has delayed logging these parcels and has been pursuing a land exchange with the Forest Service for the last 10 years. We have worked in collaboration with individuals, agencies, communities, environmental organizations, and the Forest Service to identify and select exchange parcels that balanced various interests. Exchange of the parcels agreed to by the Forest Service and Trust would make land, such as the Deer Mountain parcel, truly public land. The Trust would receive more remote land of equal value which it can use to generate income and meet its responsibility to beneficiaries.

The purpose of the board’s recent action was to assure the Trust could gain the value of timber on its land while there is still a viable timber industry. Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility - a duty to manage trust assets for the best interest of beneficiaries. We cannot legally or ethically put community interest in Trust land above those of beneficiaries and allow the land to lose value or squander the only opportunity to gain revenue from it.

Communities that value nearby Trust land have had years to secure community interest in it. No community has chosen to do so. Circumstances are now forcing the Trust to act more quickly. We have two viable choices: exchange the land or log it while there is still a timber industry.

An exchange through administrative processes could take another seven years, cost as much as $6 million, and may ultimately fail. In that time the Southeast timber industry would likely be gone - rendering Trust timber lands virtually without commercial value.

In May 2016 Senator Murkowski introduced a bill, S3006, directing the Secretary of Agriculture to make the land exchange. We are working with Sen. Murkowski to pass the bill. We are told passage in this Congress is possible though challenging.

Passage of S3006 is the Trust's preference. It would serve the interests of Trust beneficiaries, Southeast communities, and the Southeast timber industry. However, the Trust has to be prepared if S3006 is not successful. Trustees took the first step to do that by approving a potential timber sale near Ketchikan and Petersburg.

If exchange legislation does not pass the Trust Land Office will proceed with a prescribed process for a timber sale. That process requires a written determination that the timber sale is in the best interests of the Trust. The public will receive notice of that decision and given a 30-day period to provide information on why the sale would not be in the best interest of the Trust. If a final Best Interest Decision affirms or modifies the initial decision, another 20-day period is allowed for previous commenters to request reconsideration before a timber sale would occur.

Russ Webb
Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
3745 Community Park
Anchorage, AK 99508

Received September 01, 2016 - Published September 01, 2016


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