My turn: University lands bill threatens treasure

Posted: Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An archaeological site in Tracy Arm may soon be sold off as part of an ill-conceived land deal, which the Alaska Legislature seeks to justify in the name of funding the university.

Over the past dozen years or so, I've worked as a fill-in naturalist, narrating day cruises down into the Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror Wilderness Area, 40 miles south of Juneau. As often happens with hobbies, since I could return to this interest in my spare time, to read and reflect and explore at will, my love for this place has flourished. I've researched the natural history of the wildlife of the area, peeked into the science of glaciers, and delved into the culture of the Native people who called this area home. In recent years, I've begun haunting the public reading room of the State Historical Library to learn more about its mining history and fox farms. I've kayaked Tracy Arm and camped there in sunshine and in rain; instructed scores of area school kids on field trips; once I even helped set up a temporary altar so a priest could celebrate mass there. My relationship with Tracy Arm has been languid and leisurely, and I have rejoiced with literally thousands of visitors, locals and tourists alike, in the fact that Tracy Arm is a federally protected wilderness area, where humans are welcome "only as visitors." Imagine my surprise, then, to read in this newspaper that the Alaska Legislature intends to have the Lands Office of the university system sell off part of Tracy Arm to the highest bidder, in order to raise money for the university.

Apparently there is a five-acre parcel tucked away, forgotten in the heart of this wilderness that the Legislature would require State Department of Natural Resources to give over to the Lands Office to develop any way they see fit. That's right: Picture Tracy Arm with a big heliport or floatplane facility, or perhaps a dock for cruise ships, complete with T-shirt shops and plastic souvenir stores.

A narrow majority of the Legislature doesn't seem to care that the five acres contains a multi-level archaeological site. Not only is there a documented Native archaeological site on this tiny parcel, but it's also the very first place in the Juneau goldbelt where gold was discovered back in 1869. The town of Sumdum grew quickly, complete with a hotel, saloon, store, and even a U.S. post office. The Alaska Office of History and Archaeology has recognized this site as historically rich. Under current law, the land is designated for public recreation and is protected from development and vandalism as an archaeological site.

If the Legislature gets its way, it'll be able to dispose of the parcel quickly and quietly without any need to take into consideration the archaeological nature of the site. The bill by which this will occur fails to mention Tracy Arm in any way, shape or form.

It's bad policy not to notify the public of things that affect us. When even a person like myself who is keyed in to the place in question, only finds out about this a few weeks before it passes into law, I think something is amiss. If you do too, write a letter to anybody in a position to do something about it in the State Senate: Sens. Bunde, Cowdery, Dyson, Green, Huggins, Seekins, Stedman, Ben Stevens, Gary Stevens, Therriault, Wagoner, and Wilken. A letter to the governor would not be inappropriate. Tell them you value archaeological resources. Tell them that you respect Native sites on public land and hope they do too. Tell them you'd like a well-publicized public hearing in Juneau, with adequate advance notice, before Senate Bill 96 goes any further.

• Mary Irvine is a Juneau resident.

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