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FAIRBANKS - Tribal leaders from five villages in the Yukon Flats say the risk of pollution is too great and the benefits to villagers too small to back a 200,000-acre land exchange between Doyon Ltd. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's of great concern to us," said Paul Edwin, first chief of Chalkyitsik. "You can't guarantee there won't be an oil spill and then what's going to happen to all those villages down the Yukon River all the way to the Bering Sea?"
The land swap was the main topic last week of the four-day Gwich'in Gathering at Fort Yukon. Tribal leaders called a special session of the gathering, usually held every other year, to collect comment. Under a tent of blue tarp, about 60 tribal members from Yukon Flats villages sat in a circle on benches made from split-spruce logs listening to speakers about the potential effect of drilling for oil and gas.
"We're speaking for all of the villages in the Yukon Flats because we all use this land together," Edwin said. "Some of us want development and some of us don't, but we need to all come together to reach an agreement."
Most testimony opposed both the land swap and development.
"Development would destroy the land," said Paul Nathaniel, first chief of Circle. "It's our land and we should have a right to say what comes out of the land."
Speakers voiced concerns about the effect on subsistence hunting and fishing, the unhealthy influence on villages from expanded access and a general distrust of Doyon and Big Oil.
All land proposed for the trade lies within the 9-million acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Doyon would transfer title to land it owns near Beaver, Birch Creek, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik and Circle to the refuge, property with rich wildlife habitat.
The trade would allow Doyon to consolidate land holdings around the refuge's southcentral uplands, which has the greatest potential for petroleum development.
Doyon, the regional Native corporation for the Interior, received nearly 1.3 million acres within the refuge under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
The Yukon Flats is prime breeding ground for migrating waterfowl and the trade is a win-win situation for both Doyon and the refuge, said Ted Heuer, refuge manager. Congress approved spending at the end of May for an environmental impact study of the proposed trade after tribal leaders complained the process was moving too quickly.
Critics of the proposal say Doyon is giving up too much. Doyon would give up 150,000 acres for 110,000 acres and access rights to oil and gas deposits under another 96,000 acres.
Also, Doyon would surrender future rights to select an additional 58,000 acres in the refuge under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In the end, the deal would add 98,000 acres to the refuge.
"Why should we give up so much of our land for so little?" Nathaniel asked.
Doyon officials say the deal is an equal trade because potential oil deposits will be appraised at a higher value.
"We already gave away enough land," said Adlai Alexander, first chief of Fort Yukon. "We're trying to protect what land we have left for future generations."
With oil topping $55 a barrel, Doyon is hoping to cash in on potential deposits near Birch Creek and Beaver. A 75-mile spur off the trans-Alaska pipeline could carry the oil to market.
"We're looking more for oil because of the proximity of the trans-Alaska pipeline," said Norman Phillips, resource manager of lands and natural resources at Doyon. "When there's a gas pipeline, we'll look at gas too."
Studies by Exxon in the late 1980s lead Doyon to estimate the area could hold recoverable resources worth $20 million to $80 million a year for 40 years, Phillips said.
Doyon officials contend oil development will benefit the local economy and make life more affordable in the villages. Doyon has pledged to pay for job training at the drilling sites.
Tribal leaders, though, doubt development would result in any measurable improvement in the lives of villagers.
"We already have the trans-Alaska pipeline and that didn't make any Natives rich," Alexander said. "We're rich now with the land. If development goes in only a few will make money."
If the land trade is approved, Doyon would still have to find an oil company willing to spend about $30 million for additional exploration and test drilling.
"People seem to think we're at the development stage," Phillips said. "That's a process we're moving to, but we're still 10 to 15 years from that point."
The final decision on the land exchange will not be made until the environmental impact study is complete in about two years. Doyon officials hope the delay will give tribal members time to debate the issue and reach an understanding with the regional Native corporation.