My Turn: A better solution for the mental health lands debacle

The Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community believes there are better solutions than a land exchange to solve the highly controversial Alaska Mental Health Trust debacle. The exchange is detailed in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Exchange Act of 2016 (S.3006).

Specifically, what should be pursued instead is either a federal buy-out or a land transfer with the state, not feds, from existing state forestlands. Clearly, AMHT’s threats that Murkowski’s bill be passed — or else — have angered many. Further, moving the impacts of large-scale, destructive logging out of the local public’s eye to Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere on Revilla Island only caves in to the trust’s threats and simply shifts the destruction to old-growth forests already highly-fragmented by decades of logging.

The best alternative would be for the federal government to trade an ample monetary endowment to AMHT in exchange for the land holdings the trust has been trying to unload. The endowment should be based on an appraisal of the profit that the trust could be expected to net over two cutting cycles (i.e. the net value to the trust of the present timber, plus something for the land).

Of the two alternatives suggested above, the endowment alternative would be best for the environment and would focus AMHT on its real work, instead of its current distracting extra role as an arm of the timber industry.

The endowment alternative is inspired by an item in another of Murkowski’s bills, authorizing the federal government to purchase outright Shee Atika Corporation’s large, already-clearcut landholding at Cube Cove, on Admiralty Island. Clearly, the senator’s confidence that the federal government can afford this approach demonstrates that a federal buy-out for AMHT in Southeast is doable. Certainly, it is a worthy goal since it would move the trust out of the land management business and instead focus AMHT’s attention on its vital role of serving the mental health needs of Alaskans. There would be no loss of valuable public lands and scenic resources, and no threat to life and limb from logging-triggered landslides. That threat is very real and must be avoided on slopes above Petersburg homes and on Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain.

The other alternative, a land transfer with Southeast State Forest lands has some justification, since the state was the original source of the problem in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it seized AMHT’s prior land holdings, forcing the trust beneficiaries to court to have them restored with new ones. While a land exchange with the state would still result in logging by AMHT, DNR intends to log those lands in their entirety anyway. Although the public at least has minimal say on DNR’s logging, the endowment alternative is best.

Lastly, in addition to the AMHT exchange, Murkowski’s goal to move federal lands to other ownerships through privatization and transfer, includes the landless Natives bill with a 115,200 acre loss, and other legislation which includes transfer of the heart of the Tongass to the state — with up to a 2 million acres loss. The senator’s legislation is all about transfer of the American public’s old-growth forest and other resources in order to circumvent gold-standard federal laws like NEPA and NFMA, as well as kill the opportunity for public comment. If passed, it would further cripple an already severely frayed and inadequate Tongass conservation strategy and would fulfill Murkowski’s objective of placing logging under the weak Alaska Forest Resources & Practices Act, which for example allows clearcuts of unlimited size.

• 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.

More in News

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014.
Aurora Forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of March. 19

President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2023, celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Recent moves by President Joe Biden to pressure TikTok over its Chinese ownership and approve oil drilling in an untapped area of Alaska are testing the loyalty of young voters, a group that’s been largely in his corner. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Biden’s moves on Willow, TikTok test young voters

A potential TikTok ban and the Alaska drilling could weigh down reelection bid.

Students dance their way toward exiting the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé gymnasium near the end of a performance held before a Gold Medal Basketball Tournament game between Juneau and Hydaburg. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Over $2,500 raised for Tlingit language and culture program during Gold Medal performance

A flurry of regionwide generosity generated the funds in a matter of minutes.

Legislative fiscal analysts Alexei Painter, right, and Conor Bell explain the state’s financial outlook during the next decade to the Senate Finance Committee on Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Legislators eye oil and sales taxes due to fiscal woes

Bills to collect more from North Slope producers, enact new sales taxes get hearings next week.

The FBI Anchorage Field Office is seeking information about this man in relation to a Wednesday bank robbery in Anchorage, the agency announced Thursday afternoon. Anyone with information regarding the bank robbery can contact the FBI Anchorage Field Office at 907-276-4441 or Tips can be submitted anonymously.  (FBI)
FBI seeks info in Anchorage bank robbery

The robbery took place at 1:24 p.m. on Wednesday.

Kevin Maier
Sustainable Alaska: Climate stories, climate futures

The UAS Sustainability Committee is hosting a series of public events in April…

Reps. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, and Andi Story, D-Juneau, offering competing amendments to a bill increasing the per-student funding formula for public schools by $1,250 during a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday morning. McKay’s proposal to lower the increase to $150 was defeated. Story’s proposal to implement an increase during the next two years was approved, after her proposed amounts totalling about $1,500 were reduced to $800.
Battle lines for education funding boost get clearer

$800 increase over two years OKd by House committee, Senate proposing $1,348 two-year increase

A call for a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature to cast a vote that would reject recently-approved salary increases for legislators and top executive branch officials is made by State House Speaker Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, during a press conference Tuesday. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, rejected the joint session in a letter to Tilton on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
House efforts to nix legislative pay raises hit Senate roadblock

Call for a joint session rejected by upper chamber, bills to overturn pay hikes may lack support

A simulated photo shows the tailings stack and other features of Hecla Greens Creek Mine under the most aggressive of four alternatives for expanding the mine in an environmental impact assessment published Thursday by the U.S Forest Service. The tailings stack is modestly to drastically smaller in the other alternatives. The public comment period for the study is from March 24 to May 8. (U.S. Forest Service)
New study digs into alternatives for Greens Creek Mine expansion

Public comment starts Friday on four options that could extend mine’s life up to 40 years

Most Read