Residents fight University Lands Bill

Alaska land grants were controversial when first proposed by then-Gov. Murkowski in 2005

Posted: Monday, March 08, 2010

The setting for a Wrangell wilderness therapeutic camp for troubled teenagers would be ruined by logging operations likely to take place nearby if lawmakers approve a land transfer, Alaska Island Community Services Board Member Sylvia Geraghty said.

The 4,000-acre parcel at Sunny Point near the teen camp called Crossings is one of about a dozen contested parcels in Southeast Alaska listed in House Bill 295, which transfers nearly 200,000 acres of state-owned land to the University of Alaska to help finance the college.

"I'm not opposed to the university using lands to provide them money; I just wish they weren't looking at Sunny Point," Geraghty said.

Residents in small communities around the region affected by the proposed land grants expressed similar concerns.

Pelican residents are worried a private uplands owner would edge commercial fishermen out of the fleet's main anchorage in Mite Cove, resident Deb Spencer said.

Spencer owns the Shoreline, a fish-buying scow that has anchored in the cove for more than two decades. The business receives an annual permit from the state Department of Natural Resources to tie to shore and run a water line.

The university is likely to sell the Mite Cove parcel to a private owner who might build a lodge or restrict access, Spencer said.

"We would probably lose the ability to run our business there," she said.

The concerns are not new. Spencer and others fought the same land transfers in 2005, which were proposed in a nearly identical bill introduced by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The bill passed but was shot down by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2009 when the court said it violated the state constitution's dedicated funds clause. The clause prohibits setting aside a source of revenue for any one purpose.

Gov. Sean Parnell introduced HB 295 and its counterpart, Senate Bill 225, this session. The new proposal would funnel funds into general state coffers. The land parcels are the same as Murkowski's bill.

Parnell's bills take care of the legal issue but do not provide the university guaranteed money, Earthjustice lawyer Kate Glover said. The Juneau firm represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"Instead it saddles the university with the costs of management of the land but doesn't guarantee the university the benefits," Glover said.

The university needs land resources to build a great education system, President Mark Hamilton told Parnell in a letter last year.

"The University of Alaska is a land-grant college without the land," he wrote. Many college systems are funded through land grants but Alaska's received little land compared to others in the nation.

The university would make money through leases, sales or resource development. The land is managed by DNR, but local communities use much of it in Southeast in a shared capacity.

In Tenakee Springs, for example, one parcel adjacent to the harbor is used as a boat launch, homemade mill operation and even has a few cabins on it, Council Member Larry Hura said.

The town wants to lease it from the state to gain control but couldn't afford to buy the land from the university, Hura said.

The town also is concerned about losing forest access for wood gathering and hunting in a larger parcel of land included in the bill, Hura said.

The council passed a resolution against the land grants bill last month.

Southeast land in the bills represents 17.3 percent of the total at 34,655 acres, consisting largely of remote tracts and areas around communities that have settlement, general recreation and some forestry values, according to DNR.

The Southeast lands extend from Lynn Canal to south of Ketchikan, with the majority situated on Prince of Wales Island or near Wrangell, Sitka and Tenakee Springs.

The bills include 150,953 acres in the northern Interior, most of which is associated with oil and gas resource values. Southcentral tracts total 14,230 acres, mostly near the McCarthy area.

DNR originally chose the lands without using a public process.

Residents said legislators seem willing to listen to their concerns this year, and some parcels already are slated for removal from the bill.

After testifying twice so far this year about the Mite Cove parcel, Spencer said she felt there was a good chance it would be removed.

The bill is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquisat 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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