Land swap plan worries Pelican residents

Exchange between Forest Service, Shee Atika could block access to subsistence area

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pelican residents were dismayed to learn of a recently proposed land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and Shee Atika Inc. that could deny them access to a subsistence area right across the fjord from town.

"It's incredible to me that they're even considering trading land that's been logged for valuable land that has not been logged," said Norm Carson, a Pelican resident.

Shee Atika, Sitka's urban Alaska Native corporation, has not submitted a formal proposal, but is talking with the Forest Service about the idea, according to Hoonah District Ranger Rich Jennings.

"It's not even preliminary," Jennings said Monday.

Jennings estimated each of the two areas to be swapped at between 20,000 and 25,000 acres.

On the one hand is Shee Atika's land at Cube Cove, on the northwest side of Admiralty Island. Shee Atika chose the land under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and logged it. It was a working logging camp until 2002, according to state records.

On the other hand is a parcel of the Tongass National Forest across the narrow fjord of Lisianski Inlet from the town of Pelican, straddling part of Chichagof Island and Yakobi Island and including a dock the city improved using grant money. Some of the land is less than a mile from town.

"This is the main land we have access to. We do all of our deer hunting all in this area," said Carson. "If you take those lands off the map, we're all going to be competing for the few areas that are left."

Shee Atika CEO Bob Loiselle said Monday he would not discuss the exchange. Several Pelican residents and the mayor said no one from the Native corporation had contacted them about it.

They heard about the land exchange last week, after the Hoonah district ranger notified Pelican Mayor Patricia Phillips and sent a map of the proposed exchange area. The ranger, Jennings, spoke via telephone at a city council meeting last week.

"There was quite a gathering of citizens. Some of them were just information-gathering, and others were very vehemently opposed to it," Phillips said.

Jennings said he didn't know what Shee Atika wanted to use the land for, but thought it had something to do with mining exploration. The area has several gold prospects and an old nickel mine.

The Forest Service is interested in the logged Cube Cove land, Jennings said, because it has a congressional mandate to make Admiralty National Monument "whole."

"Admittedly, that would take some time before it would have the same flavor, the habitat to actually be a wilderness," he said.

But the forest would eventually recover, he said.

Jennings said he wasn't expecting such resistance when he brought the idea to Pelican. He dialed into the council meeting last week thinking the exchange could boost the economy if it somehow increased ferry service to the area.

"Like a lot of small communities, they're economically depressed," he said. "I kind of thought that's where they might have taken it, but instead they strongly reacted."

That reaction came even after he told them that given the Forest Service's present resources, this exchange could be several years down the road.

"They didn't care if it was five, six or 10 years from now. They didn't want it to happen," he said.

But that doesn't mean the land exchange process won't happen.

"Because this is national forest, the bottom line is it would still have to benefit the public as a whole. And the Pelican community is just part of the public as a whole," Jennings said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail

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