Fast work on UA lands bill irks some

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

A conference committee of Senate and House members reached a compromise Friday on a plan to transfer some 250,000 acres of land from the state to the University of Alaska.

The full Senate accepted the compromise bill 11-6 in a Friday evening session. The House took no action.

Some lawmakers were angry that the meeting was rescheduled for Friday morning with little notice to committee members or the public.

The lands bill by Gov. Frank Murkowski has been contested by conservationists and those living near the land parcels that could be conveyed to private hands. Many have argued that communities should have been more involved in the land selection process.

In 2000, the Legislature passed a law giving the university 10 years to pick 260,000 acres of state-owned land to be given to the university to sell or develop as a source of revenue. Murkowski has said efforts to transfer the land have proven expensive, time-consuming and subject to litigation.

His proposal aims to speed up the 10-year selection and conveyance process, giving the university and Department of Natural Resources the authority to select and transfer the entire 260,000 acres immediately.

Dick Mylius, a deputy director with the Department of Natural Resources, said 8,339 acres have dropped out of the bill through the committee process, leaving 62 parcels from Murkowski's original plan.

The House rejected the Senate's version of the bill and sent the two proposals to a conference committee, where members from both bodies work out the differences.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who pushed for the land transfer bill this year, said the Senate sent the bill over to the House so late in the session it did not have time to address the concerns of Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch.

Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, wanted more Southeast parcels removed from the list. The conference committee had scheduled a meeting for 3 p.m. Friday, but Ramras rescheduled it for 10 a.m. Friday with about 30 minutes' notice.

The committee met and approved removing Southeast parcels of land near the fishing town of Pelican and near Idaho Inlet, both on Chichagof Island.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, who was assigned to the conference committee, did not receive notice of the time change until after the committee approved the compromise plan.

Ellis said he believes the six-member committee, dominated by Republicans, agreed to the changes before the Friday meeting.

"Obviously, they met behind closed doors and worked out their differences," he said. "The public, the press, there are people all over the state interested in this bill, and they thought the meeting was for 3 o'clock this afternoon."

Ramras said he rescheduled the conference committee because he wanted to move forward with the bill.

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