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Wrangell mayor urges US Senate to keep federal funds flowing
was written by June Leffler, KSTK – Wrangell , 2019-11-23 01:39:18
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Alaska cities and boroughs can’t develop or collect property taxes on federal land, but sometimes they’ve got a lot of it.
The City and Borough of Wrangell, for instance, has just 2,500 people, but covers an area that’s larger than Delaware.
Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka testified in the U.S. Senate Thursday in favor of two federal programs that reimburse local governments for the public land in their backyard.
Because of the Tongass National Forest, Prysunka said, more than 97 percent of his borough is owned and managed by the feds.
“This severely restricts our ability to grow our economy to create the tax base necessary to provide the legally mandated services to residents and visitors alike,” he said. “There is no ‘small-community exemption’ to relax a rule for sewage treatment, emergency services or education standards.”
The mayor spoke to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, at the invitation of its chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The PILT program, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, funnels about $30 million a year to Alaska municipalities. Secure Rural Schools sends almost $11 million, primarily to Southeast Alaska. Prysunka says it’s essential for school districts.
“In Alaska teachers do a short of shuffle. And if we’re uncertain about our funding it creates uncertainty about how many teachers we are going to be able to afford,” he testified.
Wrangell receives about $1.5 million in total from the two programs. That’s a significant sum for the borough, but not among the largest allocations. The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough each get close to $4 million.
Bills that would continue the federal funding are making their way through Congress now.
Alaska Public Media reporter Liz Ruskin contributed reporting.
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Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is actually the biggest national forest within the United States. It acquired its name from the Tongass Clan of the Tlingit native people and goes back to 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve. In 1908 the forest had been re-named and expanded and currently the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest stretches from the Pacific ocean to the large inland ice fields that border British Columbia and from the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island to Malaspina Glacier five hundred miles to the north. More than 80 percent of Southeast Alaska is in Tongass and with it’s thousands of islands, fjords and bays the national forest offers 11,000 miles of shoreline. Tongass’ extensive coastal rain forest includes towering hemlock, spruce and red and yellow cedar. The undergrowth beneath thebig conifers is composed of young evergreens and shrubs such as devil’s club, blueberry and huckleberry. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens drape many trees and rocks.
Wildlife is abundant all through Tongass. Sitka blacktail deer and it’s two key predators, wolf and brown bear, are located here. Black bear are common as well as mountain goats and some moose. Marine mammals observed along the shores include Dall and harbor porpoises, seals and humpback, minke and orca whales and an evergrowing population of sea otters. The waters teem with fish including halibut and all 5 species of Pacific salmon. More bald eagles stay in this area than in any other area in the world. Even though the place to find the world’s biggest temperate rain forest, almost fifty percent of Tongass is covered by ice, water, wetlands and rock. It’s most legendary ice floe is the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska’s “Drive-in glacier” because it is no more than thirteen miles from down-town Juneau along a paved road. A boat trip through Petersburg or Wrangell can bring you near the face of LeConte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier on the continent. Only 30 miles north of Yakutat is Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in the world and easily Alaska’s most active. The 76-mile-long glacier has crossed Russell Fjord several times, most recently in 2008. The rip tides and currents that flow in front of the 8-mile-wide glacier are so strong they cause Hubbard to calve almost continuously. The Tongass features 19 wilderness areas, including the 545-sq-mile Russell Fjord Wilderness, as well as Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fiords National Monument. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the general area around Haines and Skagway aren’t part of the national forest.