My Turn: Sorting through the 'heck of a mess' left by the University of Alaska

Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003

Locals for Responsible Land Use began as a small group of South Tongass residents concerned about the University of Alaska's questionable sale of a 145-acre parcel of watershed lands and old-growth timber to Alcan Forest Products. Alcan intends to log the area immediately. LRLU has evolved into a grassroots movement of Alaska residents who have been impacted by the university's irresponsible land use policies and who intend to hold the U of A responsible for their poor stewardship of public lands.

The 145.27 acres of heavily wooded land are adjacent to around 60 residential properties and stretch from the Mountain Point water tank to Herring Cove. The harvest area will be over a mile long and will be visible from South Tongass Highway and from offshore. The view that many locals and visitors enjoy from the Herring Cove bridge and from across the Cove will be impacted by the proposed harvest. This stretch of land is one of the most scenic areas on our road system. Many Ketchikan residents and their visitors make regular trips "out the road" to view the numerous eagles, fish and bears. Every summer day dozens of charter boats fish off the shoreline and busloads of visitors stop on the bridge to enjoy the surrounding beauty.

The U of A Lands Department valued the property, set a minimum bid of $129,000 and sold it to ALCAN Forest Products for $175,000, well under the borough-appraised value of $440,000. This giveaway of prime land will dramatically lower property values in the vicinity of the sale and negatively impact property owners and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Since property values are based on current comparable sales, homeowners lose equity through no fault of their own and the borough loses a large portion of its tax base.

Although some may not care what visitors see when they visit our community, the dollars that they leave are important to all residents. This timber harvest will be visible to boat traffic, including cruise ships passing Mountain Point, to Misty Fjords flightseeing tours and to visitors busing to the future Tongass Coast Aquarium in George Inlet. We have suffered major setbacks in our timber industry and challenges with commercial fishing. Currently, tourism is a major factor in Ketchikan's economy. We need to encourage all aspects of economic growth in Ketchikan. Harvesting this timber will result in a one-time return for the owners and 30-plus years of inhibited growth opportunities in the South Tongass area.

Citizens from all walks of life, from all corners of the borough and the state, are coming forward with their concerns. Most of their worries have to do with economics, but safety is another great concern: safety of school children and their buses sharing narrow roads with logging trucks; safety of homes built at the base of steep slopes, vulnerable to slides and flooding. A number of homes have legal water rights - what will road building and logging do to their water quality? How will the Mountain Point watershed be affected by the roads and logging? Logged land is not popular for residential development, which is a logical extension of current neighborhood use. Industrial uses are not a good fit with residential use and watershed protection.

Just two weeks ago most of us had no idea the land had been sold. Now we find ourselves in a race against time to save our neighborhood. Locals for Responsible Land Use is working hard on many fronts to head off this rapidly approaching disaster. We have instructed our legal counsel to investigate the circumstances of the University of Alaska land sale.

Possible solutions might include a land swap or the borough purchasing the land and rezoning it to more appropriate uses.

The University of Alaska has left us with a heck of a mess. We look to the borough and to Alcan to work with us in finding a way to clean this mess up.

This commentary was submitted by Parker Smith, Sharron Huffman and Deborah Gravel, who serve, respectively, as president, treasurer and board member of Locals for Responsible Land Use. They live in Ketchikan.

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