My turn: University threatens lands while projecting wilderness image

Posted: Tuesday, March 15, 2005

By ANISSA BERRY

In the March issue of Outside magazine, a University of Alaska Southeast advertisement portrays the university as situated in an "idyllic" environment, with "magnificent wilderness" surrounding campus. I find that highly ironic, since the University of Alaska is lustily pursuing 760,000 acres of state and federal land in Alaska to develop into hard cash. The glossy ad shows forested mountains reflected in calm waters. I guess the darker reality of university clearcuts and angry communities doesn't draw new students.

I find it appalling that the university is participating in a cheap land grab that infuriates many Alaskan towns, costing them valuable local lands to potential logging, subdivision development or cruise-ship company lodge operations. The underlying blame lies at the feet of the Murkowski father-daughter tag-team, who are pushing a sour deal for many Alaskan communities by privatizing public lands across Alaska.

Murkowski-driven land grabs are nothing new. Frank Murkowski, while in the U.S. Senate, failed in multiple attempts to privatize public lands through university land grabs. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's SB 293 should meet the same fate. When I was president of the UAS Student Conservation Club in 1997-98, the students exposed the shocking truth about the university's poor land management and stewardship record. Entire valleys were clearcut at Cape Yakataga, Icy Bay, and Slide Ridge in Ketchikan. Equipped with the fundamental truth about the university and startling pictures to prove it, we helped stop bad legislation that would have allocated millions of acres to the university. The result? The university simply carried on with proper funding from the Legislature.

The most recent university land bills (HB130 and SB 96) in the state Legislature were planned behind closed doors by the university and the Department of Natural Resources. They give valuable lands adjacent to communities and in important habitat areas to the university in the name of generating revenue. The bill also repeals public oversight provisions for university land use on any university owned lands. Revenues from development would only cover about 1 percent of the university's budget.

In the case of my little town, Port Alexander, robbing Peter to pay Paul steals 267 acres of state land surrounding town. DNR's October 2002 Northern Southeast Area Plan states "development is not considered appropriate" for a multitude of community and habitat reasons. There is no mention of settlement or timber production. Port Alexander will lose some of our critical economic land base, hunting, recreating and subsistence lowlands within reach of town. Neither our community nor the university will benefit from this land swap; I certainly won't recommend that students attend a university so blatantly disrespectful of the land and people.

None of the tribal leaders, mayors, hunters or other Alaskans who testified about the state university lands proposal supports it. In fact, we are angry and insulted. When the bill was sent back to be reworked for March 2, co-chairman Ramras stated that DNR would be working with the affected communities. Has the university or DNR approached Port Alexander? No. In addition, Ramras firmly stated that the land bill will be kept together, and he hopes that the parcels put forward will be in the amended bill. Why can't communities be a part of the discussion with DNR and the university? What's the rush to push this through? Yes, there were opportunities for public testimony, but communities had only a few days notice, and no time to orient themselves to the implications of the bill. A bill that is not significantly changed to include meaningful public process and remove controversial community use lands is a no-go.

If financial solvency is the issue, then clearly the university would better benefit from direct funding from the Legislature. The way the university develops, with massive clear-cutting or land sales with little public notice, do not qualify it to act as a steward of valuable neighboring community lands. Even the university says land won't solve long term financial needs. Please contact our state legislators and Sen. Lisa Murkowski to let them know that we don't support bills that harm our communities and fail to truly support our university.

• Anissa Berry lives in Port Alexander and is a former president of the University of Alaska Student Conservation Club.



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