Easements protect Kake water supply

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2001

Part of the watershed that is the source of drinking water for the 700 people of Kake will be protected from logging under conservation easements signed this summer.

The easements, and a related land exchange and financial compensation package authorized by Congress last year, bring to a close a 17-year effort to protect the competing interests of the city of Kake and Kake Tribal Corp.

"I think (the watershed) is saved just in time by this land easement," said Mike Jackson, the realty and trust officer for the Organized Village Of Kake, the nonprofit tribal organization, which supported the easements.

"When it rains, it floods. When it stops raining, it dries up. It never used to be this way when it was a real watershed. Just in my lifetime it's started to do this stuff," he said.

Kake Tribal, a for-profit Native corporation for about 650 shareholders, received land in the Gunnuk Creek watershed in the early 1970s as part of its allotment to be developed, under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. But the city got an injunction in 1984 to stop Kake Tribal from logging on its watershed holdings because logging threatened the city's water supply.

Conservation easements maintain private ownership of land, while prohibiting some or all development. The Kake easements, signed in May, protect about 2,400 acres in the watershed from commercial development, while continuing to allow subsistence hunting, fishing and the gathering of berries and materials for baskets.

"These are historical activities that we wanted to guarantee into the future," said Kake Tribal President Sam Jackson.

The easements also allow for the replacement of a dam on Gunnuk Creek that was punctured by a waterborne tree in July 2000. The dam was part of the town's reservoir.

Under the agreement, Kake Tribal has given 1,430 acres in the upper watershed, protected by a conservation easement, to the city in exchange for 1,389 forested acres at Jenny Creek, also in Kake. The Jenny Creek parcel is on National Forest land that will be counted as part of Alaska's statehood selections of federal land.

Kake Tribal has received $5 million from Congress to compensate for the timber revenues it has lost by not logging its watershed land since 1984. The Alaska Congressional delegation is seeking more money for Kake Tribal this year, according to U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski's office.

Meanwhile, Kake Tribal retains ownership of 1,127 acres in the lower watershed, and those too are protected by a conservation easement.

The measure also trades Sealaska Corp.'s subsurface rights on the land under the conservation easements for the same rights on other land. Sealaska is the regional for-profit Native corporation.

The watershed is the community's primary source of drinking water, provides water for a hatchery, and "it's just an important habitat for the wildlife, flora and fauna, in the Kake area in general," said Karl Potts, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Land Trust, which will monitor the easements.

Gunnuk Creek Hatchery Manager Brock Meredith said the easements are a good thing, but they protect only about one-third to one-half of the watershed. The rest of the watershed, in private ownership, "could easily be on the chopping block."

Timber harvests have clearcut two-thirds to three-quarters of the watershed, Meredith said. It's made it hard to run a hatchery because high levels of sediment in the creek degrade the water quality. The hatchery mostly produces chum salmon for the commercial seine fleet.

High water flows in the stream are higher now after logging, Meredith added, and they cause erosion that puts more sediment in the stream. Low water flows are lower, leading to temperatures dangerously high for salmon and to a sheer lack of water, he said.

The Organized Village of Kake is using federal funds to develop a watershed management plan together with the city, Kake Tribal, Sealaska, the hatchery, the land trust, the U.S. Forest Service and the public, said Mike Jackson. The plan will identify areas, such as old logging roads and unstable slopes, that need restoration.

Meanwhile, Kake Tribal is still assessing the value of the timber on the Jenny Creek land. Sam Jackson said the parcel holds an estimated 19 million board feet of salable timber, but the company doesn't plan to log it right away.

Congress, as part of the deal, won't allow Kake Tribal to sell the logs whole for export, a lucrative market. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who cosponsored the land exchange measure, has said that provision was important to him to maintain a timber-processing industry in Southeast.

Instead, the company is required to have the logs processed locally before it can sell them. Jackson said Kake Tribal would like to build a processing plant in Kake, but he's concerned that the high cost of electricity would be prohibitive.

"As it is now we're just allowing the timber to stand until we can determine the feasibility of the whole thing," Jackson said.

He said Kake Tribal, which has reorganized after declaring bankruptcy in 1999, will use about $2.3 million of the $5 million from Congress to pay down some of its $14 million in debt to business creditors and to shareholders who won a court judgment in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination in the offering of insurance benefits.

Kake Tribal will use the rest of the federal money to pay for operations and to improve its seafood processing plant, fuel facility and construction company, Jackson said.

"The intent of our reorganization plan is to pay creditors 100 percent over time, including shareholder creditors, and we're fairly confident we'll be able to do that," Jackson said.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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