The Alaska Mental Health Land exchange has caused plenty of controversy in Southeast. About 18,000 acres of Trust land near communities would be exchanged for about 20,000 acres of more remote Forest Service land on Prince of Wales Island and Shelter Cove near Ketchikan. Many fear if the exchange fails, contentious areas near Petersburg and Ketchikan will be logged.

Wrangell Mental Health land exchange parcels. (Courtesy of Trust Land Office)  

But, when Trust Land Office staff held a public meeting in Wrangell last week, the Nolan Center wasn’t packed. In fact, barely any one showed up.

Four parcels along Zimovia Highway, about 1,000 acres, are up for trade. The only opposition has come from the Wrangell Borough Assembly over 115 acres near Pats Landing. The borough said development opportunities on that land will be lost once exchanged to the Forest Service.

Trust Land Office Deputy Director Wyn Menefee explained that the borough’s comment was taken into consideration.

“We did recheck with the Forest Service. We couldn’t take it out in time,” Menefee said of the Trust’s attempt to renegotiate the land. “There’s potential for slight modifications. I don’t know what modification will actually be made. I’m not going to make any promises at this point.”

The borough has otherwise supported the process. Land up for exchange begins just a few miles south of town and also boarders Rainbow Falls Creek and the former Wrangell Institute site. The largest parcel, 700 acres, is in the Pats Lake area, a popular recreation site.

Four bills are making their way through Congress and the state Legislature. Both state bills, HB 155 and SB 88, have made it through both resource committees. One federal bill, S131, has passed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Menefee explained after passing, a provision to protect the Forest Service from logging exchanged lands was added.

“So, they put extra language in there. Generally what happens there is the Forest Service will apply the same land use designation that is adjacent to those lands that they’re getting,” he said. “All the lands that we’re going to be turning over the Forest Service in this exchange are adjacent to national forest lands. There’s no gap. They would just manage it the same as the lands next to it.”

The Trust will still control about 1,400 acres of land in the Wrangell area. Menefee said much of those lands could be developed. Both the state and Congress must pass legislation before the exchange could happen. It would take about two years before the Wrangell parcels would be traded.