My Turn: University lands bill not the way to generate funds

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed legislation (HB 130 and SB 96) to convey 260,000 acres of land to the University of Alaska has received a firestorm of opposition from many individuals and communities throughout Southeast Alaska. Land proposed for conveyance is within or near Juneau, Sitka, Haines, Pelican, Elfin Cove, Tenakee Springs, Petersburg, Wrangell, Edna Bay, Coffman Cove, Hollis, Thorne Bay, and Warm Springs Bay.

The land list accompanying the proposed legislation encompasses land identified for settlement, wildlife habitat, general use and public recreation in the Department of Natural Resources' area plans.

The assumption that this land will generate substantial revenue to fund university programs is flawed. The most desirable state land in Southeast already has been sold, conveyed to municipalities, to the mental health trust and to the university in a prior settlement. An endowment fund or appropriation is a more sensible way to achieve financial stability.

DNR's area plans undergo intense public scrutiny during a two-year development process. The commissioner's approval of these plans provides classification and management intent for state land. The inclusion of settlement lands limits DNR's ability to conduct its land disposal program. Public recreation lands should not be included as these lands have unique public values. Once conveyed to the university, the public recreation classification becomes meaningless and the public, which was assured by DNR that the land would be used for public recreation purposes, is betrayed and public trust and confidence in DNR is eroded.

One example is the 1,358 acres at Lynn Canal, more commonly called Lynn Sisters. This parcel is classified as public recreation and is identified as a future state marine park. This land would complement St. James Bay State Marine Park a few miles to the north. Several parcels have a wildlife habitat classification; DNR should continue to manage all wildlife habitat lands.

DNR can sell land only classified as settlement whereas the classifications have no relevance to the university. While the list does not include any settlement lands proposed for sale within the next five years, DNR can ill afford the loss of any settlement land if the public desires DNR to continue with a long-term land disposal program.

The 260,000-acre figure has been tossed around for years. While the university obviously wants the maximum acreage possible, the governor must reduce this acreage and remove from the pool all controversial parcels.

This legislation would be more palatable to the public if lands classified as settlement, public recreation and wildlife habitat were removed from the pool. DNR needs an adequate supply of settlement lands to continue with its land disposal program. Public recreation and wildlife habitat lands are identified for specific, unique values and must continue to be managed by DNR. Elimination of these lands will aid the university by having fewer scattered parcels to manage.

While in Congress the governor failed to pass federal legislation that would convey to the university 250,000 acres from the Tongass. He now wants to fast-track state legislation. The governor must not underestimate the public's desire to see these lands managed as directed by DNR area plans.

If you are concerned with this legislation, time is critical. Please contact the governor's office, your legislator and particularly those legislators on the House Resources Committee. The land parcels can be viewed on the DNR Web site.

• Ron Schonenbach retired from the Department of Natural Resources after working 25 years, and serving as the Southeast regional manager, Division of Mining, Land and Water for the last five years.

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