My Turn: Juneau gets nothing from Berners Bay land trade

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2004

Let's face it: No one lives in Juneau for the shopping. We don't stick around because Alaska's capital city boasts a world-class ballet or four-star restaurants or trendy nightclubs. We live here because we are mere steps away from Alaska's unsurpassed wilderness. In short, we live here because of places like Berners Bay.

The bay is one of those places that has something for everyone. Many of us take day hikes into the bay from the end of the road or kayak and boat in from Echo Cove. Others rent the Forest Service cabin or camp at Sawmill Creek. The bay has special significance for its original inhabitants, the Auk Kwaan, for whom Lionshead Mountain is sacred. It's biological wonders attract people throughout the year. One wonder will happen soon. Every spring, untold thousands of herring and hooligan swarm into the bay to spawn in the Berners River. They attract hundreds of sea lions, thousands of migratory birds, whales, seals and one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the planet. To Juneau, Berners Bay means salmon fishing, hunting, air boating, camping, guiding, kayaking and all the other benefits - physical, economic, and spiritual - of living in Alaska.

Yet Sen. Murkowski is trying to take Berners Bay away from us. Her Cape Fox land exchange bill would put up to 12,000 acres of public land on the northwest shore of the bay in the hands of two private corporations, Sealaska and Cape Fox. The new private owners would have the right to mine, log, subdivide, sell, develop and deny the public access to the land. In exchange, the public would receive 3,000 acres of mostly logged Cape Fox land near Ketchikan.

Juneau gets nothing from this deal. We lose an important area that makes living in Juneau special, and we take on all the costs of damage to the bay that would result from its privatization. These costs could be high in terms of loss and degradation of the bay's fish and wildlife habitat and scenic beauty. The first tab would likely be rung up by Coeur Alaska, a mining company from Idaho that is trying to reopen the Kensington gold mine on the land Cape Fox and Sealaska would acquire. Coeur has said that the mine can open without Murkowski's land exchange. However, what the trade would do (and what Coeur doesn't often mention) is that it would remove some of the mine's operations from public oversight, making it easier for the corporation to mine irresponsibly. Coeur already wants to criss-cross the bay with ferries transporting its workers and to dump toxic mine waste into a freshwater lake that drains into it. How much worse could its plans become if the company no longer had to follow Forest Service regulations for use of public land?

Murkowski argues that the bill would make amends to Cape Fox, which argues it was short-changed in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. If anything, Cape Fox did better, not worse, than most village corporations granted land under ANCSA. Cape Fox received the same amount of land (roughly 23,000 acres) as all other Southeast Alaska village and urban corporations. Plus - unlike many corporations in other parts of Alaska - it was able to select land with valuable timber. The corporation's real problem is that it logged nearly all its land within 15 years of receiving it. What right does Cape Fox have to trade in this used-up land for prime public lands in areas like Berners Bay?

This land swap is not about Native land rights. It's about maximizing private interests at the expense of the public. And it's about polluting one of Juneau's most popular recreation areas for profit.

At her town hall meeting in Juneau last September, hundreds of community members asked Sen. Murkowski not to trade away land around Berners Bay. This past Wednesday, another 100 people stood in the rain to tell her again not to touch our bay. That she continues to push the bill is a sign the senator is not listening to us. This land trade is not in the public interest, and Juneau does not want to see Berners Bay in private hands.

• Russell Heath is Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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