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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

AMHT Open to Federal Buyout - But Questions Linger

By Rebecca Knight


November 15, 2016
Tuesday AM

The Alaska Mental Health Trust develops resources it owns to fund its operations. Controversy is churning this year in Southeast Alaska over AMHT’s threat to immediately log forestland it owns within communities unless, by mid-January, Congress passes a bill exchanging those lands for 21,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest. The threatened logging in the communities would ruin cherished viewsheds and, because the slopes are steep, jeopardize residences and domestic and municipal waters supplies.

Giving up forestland from the Tongass is equally problematic. Under state law clearcut size is unlimited, for example.

There is a much better way. My organization, GSACC (see below), is advocating amendment of the bill to instead buyout forestland the Trust owns within communities. It pleased us to hear from the Trust at its recent community meetings that it is open to a federal buyout.

However, we remain dismayed by the Trust’s continuing threats and its continuing single-minded push for the land exchange. Openness to a buyout needs to be more than rhetorical. It needs to be a concerted effort by AMHT as a willing party to substitute that option into the bill, including asking the public to support it.

Clearly, the federal buyout option would achieve multiple beneficial outcomes by providing revenue to the Trust, protecting the well-being of the communities and their threatened residents, and preventing clearcuts of unrestricted size on 21,000 acres of public forest on Revilla, Gravina, and Prince of Wales Islands.

We question whether AMHT ever had a real intent to log the risky, controversial Petersburg and Ketchikan uplands. For several reasons we see its threat as a ploy to force the public to support the land exchange scheme.

First, in an alleged violation of the Opens Meeting Act, on August 24 the Trust decided to issue its threat to log these uplands if the congressional bill fails to pass by Jan. 15. That outraged local residents, including the Editor of the Petersburg Pilot who called it “extortion.”

Second, AMHT’s executive director told the Ketchikan Daily news, “[W] e are serious about abiding by our mission, which is to maximize revenue to the trust.” The Trust then repeatedly solicited letters to Congress in support of the legislation. Yet, as AMHT acknowledged during recent public meetings, it has actually done no timber planning for the Petersburg and Ketchikan parcels. In fact, AMHT freely admitted it used threats to drum up support for the legislation. The threat has every appearance of being a ruse, a potent one that traps the public because it can ill afford to gamble.

Third, AMHT is so confident its threat will work in pushing the bill to passage by Congress that it has already negotiated contracts for timber on the exchange lands, even though it does not yet own them. These negotiations took place well in advance of the Trust board’s August 24 meeting, where the tactic of using the threat was decided upon.

Near-finalization of the contracts was disclosed in an August 17 email from AMHT’s senior resource manager—one week prior to the Trust board’s decision to threaten the communities with logging. The email, being specific to Prince of Wales Island, discloses that AMHT was “in final negotiations with Viking Lumber for purchase of all timber on POW associated with this proposed exchange.” We believe a contract was also negotiated with Alcan for the Revilla Island parcel.

Blowback prodded the Trust to hold belated public meetings in Petersburg and Ketchikan about a week ago. When asked during the Petersburg meeting whether timber sale contracts exist for the exchange parcels, the executive director responded “Yes”. This answer was quickly recanted – twice – by AMHT’s resource manager who added, “No, you can’t sell something you don’t own.” His denial is flatly contradicted by his own email.

AMHT’s needless threats have caused much upheaval and discord in our communities.

Congress should be wary of letters supporting a land exchange, since they were solicited under false pretenses. Congress should simply buyout the forestlands, since the Trust has acknowledged it is a viable option. It is a classic win-win.


Rebecca Knight
for the Greater SE Alaska Conservation Community
Sitka, Alaska

Received November 14, 2016 - Published November 15, 2016

About: "Becky Knight is a longtime Southeast Alaska grassroots volunteer and is on the board of the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community. She was president of Petersburg-based Narrows Conservation Coalition, worked as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service and is retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "


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