Lands bill hits boiling point in Legislature

Cities beg for review and more public participation

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Alaska Municipal League and residents from across Alaska are begging legislators to put the brakes on the Murkowski administration's fast-track legislation to grant 260,00 acres of state land to the University of Alaska.

"The uproar the bill is causing isn't worth it," said Julie Hursey from Petersburg on Monday during the House Resources Committee's second hearing on the bill. Hursey said the state needs to find a better way to provide a revenue stream to the university.

"I'd ask that this bill be slowed down," said Kathie Wasserman, the league's Juneau-based program and policy coordinator.

Wasserman also requested that public-participation measures previously required by the state when it donates land to the university system be inserted back into the proposed bill.

Craig Mayor Dennis Watson and other Southeast Alaska leaders whose communities are flanked by a total of 40,114 acres in proposed university land grants said Monday that the bill undermines their ability to acquire new land if the state later requires them to form boroughs.

The bill has encountered vociferous objections from Tenakee Springs, Pelican, Kodiak, Wrangell, Port Alexander, Sitka, Elfin Cove, Baranof Warm Springs and other communities. More than 20 residents testified unanimously against the bill in Monday's two-hour hearing.

The new legislation would eliminate an existing provision in state law that prevents the university from selecting land that otherwise could be selected by the communities when they form boroughs.

The ability to select state land is "one of the very few incentives to form boroughs," Wasserman said.

Though most of the state land proposed for university ownership is in Interior Alaska, the most valuable and some of the most controversial land in the bill includes 44 parcels scattered throughout Southeast Alaska. Most of those parcels are designated for private and commercial development, such as remote cabins or lodges.

Tenakee Springs and Port Alexander residents testified Monday that the bill is inconsistent with their communities' land plans.

"Our cemetery would be cut off, except by water access," said Marty Remund, of Port Alexander.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said his chief concern about the bill is maintaining public access to land. He questioned the proposal to give away state land near Port Alexander that residents said they use as a source of water.

The university has estimated the land would generate a $5 million annuity 20 years after the school acquired the land.

University officials said Monday during the hearing that they would not offer any land for sale before giving public notice and holding extensive workshops in the affected communities.

It may take the university 50 to 100 years to find a way to develop some parcels, said Mary Montgomery, the university's director of land management. Her statement prompted some residents to ask why the land deal is slated for action during this legislative session.

When Gov. Frank Murkowski submitted the lands bill on Feb. 4, he asked for prompt legislative approval.

His bill dovetails with a similar proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to grant the university 250,000 acres of federal land and the ability to select 250,000 more acres following the state's land grant. Her bill would exclude roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest.

More public testimony is planned on the governor's bill in the House Resources Committee on Wednesday and Friday. The bill is also slated for review by the House Finance Committee and the Senate Resources and Finance committees.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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