May 4, 2017

U.S Senate approves budget, which includes land exchange

KRBD Community Radio
May 4, 2017

By Leila Kheiry

By a wide margin, the U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a spending plan to carry the government through the fall. The measure includes a provision to trade U.S. Forest Service land for land currently owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

The bill now heads to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The land exchange will trade about 20,000 acres of federal land on Prince of Wales Island and in the Shelter Cove area for about 18,000 acres of Trust land, including Deer Mountain near Ketchikan and land above homes in Petersburg.

In a media teleconference Thursday morning, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the land exchange has been in the works for a long time, and has broad support from community members, state and Alaska Mental Health Trust officials, and the timber industry.

“You’ve got Viking over there that are very, very worried about any immediate or near-term supply of timber,” she said.

Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island is the last mid-size mill operating in the region. Owners have said that without a known timber supply, it would have to close.

Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office plans to log the land once the trade is completed. Proceeds from the timber harvest will be used to fund mental health services in the state.

Murkowski noted that the omnibus spending bill also includes a provision to strengthen biomass as an alternative energy option. She said that through the bill, biomass, or wood energy, has been redefined as a carbon-neutral energy source.

That way, Murkowski said, biomass projects will be eligible for federal tax credits and other renewable-energy incentive programs.

“For instance, out there at Ward Cove, what they’ve been trying to do with the pellets,” she said. “Maybe they’d have the ability to access some federal grant monies that would now be made available because biomass is considered a renewable energy.”

Tongass Forest Enterprises in the Ward Cove area is a Ketchikan company that produces wood pellets for local customers. One of its customers is the Ketchikan International Airport, which installed a biomass boiler last year.

The omnibus bill also includes funding for federal payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, which goes to local communities affected by tax-exempt federal property. But, Murkowski said, they were not able to include a provision for Secure Rural Schools.

That federal funding program provides money to communities surrounded by national forest land. Murkowski said there already is an effort in the works to fund Secure Rural Schools in the FY2018 budget.

Murkowski said a long-term solution is needed.

“We know that our SRS-reliant communities just get pulled back and forth and the uncertainty that’s created when you don’t know whether or not a significant portion of your community’s budget is going to be able to be funded, because you don’t know if SRS funding is coming,” she said. “We want to get beyond that.”

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough received about a million dollars a year for the past two years through Secure Rural Schools. The Tongass National Forest makes up about 97 percent of the land within borough boundaries.

The Senate approved the trillion-dollar omnibus bill in a vote of 79-18. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan joined Murkowski to vote in favor of the bill, which funds the government through September.