A land trade proposed by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority could ignite another spark in an already heated conversation over timber in the Tongass National Forest.
A proposal by the public corporation would exchange several parcels of land near seven Southeast communities, including Juneau, for 50,000 acres of forest on Prince of Wales Island.
The trust, which manages about 1 million acres around the state to fund its mental health services, plans to harvest timber on the island.
Project Manager Paul Slenkamp said the trust worked closely with the regional Native corporation to choose lands that are not in conflict with the Sealaska Lands Bill, a bill supported by the Alaska Congressional delegation that transfers about 85,000 acres to the company. The bill is controversial, especially on Prince of Wales, because Sealaska plans to log a majority of the acreage.
The trust is trying to get Congressional support but U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Thursday it's not the right time to introduce the land exchange.
"You want to put that into the mix, let's really make this explode," Begich said he told the trust's representatives when they asked for support. "They left my office very discouraged."
Begich said ongoing conflicts over Sealaska's land selections are just what the region needs to get over its two-decades-old deadlock over timber.
"It's a tough love moment," he said.
The 4-year-old Tongass Futures Roundtable did some good work but it's time to force difficult decisions, Begich said.
"It's tense but we've got to put it all on the table ... let's just deal with this."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski hasn't made a decision about whether to support the land exchange, her staff said Thursday.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Don Young said he would evaluate a bill that doesn't conflict with Sealaska's.
The land exchange would relieve pressure to cut timber in the seven communities where the trust would trade land to the Forest Service.
In Juneau, a large parcel behind residential areas on Douglas Island would go into public ownership. Other parcels in Petersburg and Ketchikan are considered important view corridors where residents don't want trees cut down.
The other parcels are in Wrangell, Skagway, Meyers Chuck and Sitka.
Slenkamp is a 30-year timber industry expert, and is the former Southeast area forester for the Alaska Division of Forestry.
The land trade would bring jobs and a renewed timber economy to Prince of Wales Island, Slenkamp said. Eighteen percent of the lands contain old-growth forest and half has new growth.
A Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency received the request but isn't working on it. Land exchanges require years of study before they are approved, though an act of Congress can eliminate most of the red tape.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.