Panel sends lands bill to floor

Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2005

To the disappointment of some Southeast Alaska communities, a House panel Tuesday moved a controversial university land grant bill to the House floor.

Since it was introduced, Gov. Frank Murkowski's bill granting approximately 260,000 acres of state land to the University of Alaska has generated outrage from Ketchikan to Coldfoot.

As a result of problems in the bill pointed out by residents in a series of legislative hearings, about 10,000 acres have been deleted from the final version of the bill. The Senate version of the bill is under review.

A number of disputed parcels remain in the final version of the House bill because of concerns about reducing the net acreage to the university below 250,000, said Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, who participated in final negotiations over the bill.

That's because in Congress, Sen. Lisa Murkowski is proposing a matching federal land grant to the university.

But the mayors of Sitka and Wrangell said the bill allows the university to take land of great value to residents, in places such as Tom's Place, a historic settlement near Wrangell, and Sitka's Biorka Island and Lisianski Inlet.

"They (the university) took the best of everything and there was no discussion of it," said Valery McCandless, mayor of Wrangell.

Daniel Trail, a resident of Tom's Place, sat through the Senate Finance hearing and was upset when Weyhrauch told Finance committee members that removing Tom's Place would create "a can of worms" for the bill and could be considered later.

"It merits a lot of real deliberation (now)," Trail said.

Recent negotiations between Southeast Republican legislators, the state and the university resulted in a total of eight parcels in Southeast Alaska deleted and four other parcels near Wrangell and Petersburg reserved until 2009 for borough selection.

If Wrangell and Petersburg do not select the four parcels, they will be conveyed to the university.

A proposed land grant at the Kodiak Rocket Range was also deleted from the House bill. The bill prevents conveyance of lands until prior claims, such as Native allotments, are resolved.

Midway through House Finance committee discussions on the bill Tuesday, Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, suggested that the legislators consider granting the university the Point Thompson gas field instead of tiny land parcels scattered throughout Alaska.

The gas field, if developed, could generate about half of the university's annual state budget request, Croft said.

Croft's proposed amendment generated interest from many committee members, several of whom said "ye ... no," when voting. Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Kenai said "maybe" and then "no." Rep. Carl Moses, D-Unalaska, voted in favor of the bill.

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