Senate panel tables Cape Fox land swap till September

'Unresolved issue' is making sure equal value exists between Native and federal lands

Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Two federal land proposals involving Alaska, including a controversial Tongass National Forest land exchange with Cape Fox Corp., are on hold until September.

Members of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee decided that Sen. Lisa Murkowski's Cape Fox proposal had "unresolved issues," said Marnie Funk, a press aide for the committee in Washington, D.C.

The bills are tabled until the Senate convenes again in September.

The proposed Cape Fox Land Entitlement Act would enable two Southeast Native corporations, Cape Fox and Sealaska, to acquire national forest land and mineral rights at the Jualin and Kensington mines at Berners Bay.

The corporations have entered into a related agreement with Coeur Alaska, which would lease surface and mineral rights to the land if the company developed its proposed Kensington gold mine, 45 miles north of downtown Juneau.

The Senate committee's "unresolved issue" with the Cape Fox bill is ensuring the equal value of Native and federal lands involved in the exchange, Funk said. Committee staff have tentatively agreed to a revision in the Cape Fox bill that would require an independent fair-market appraisal of the numerous lands involved.

The land to be acquired by the U.S. Forest Service includes harvested timberland near Ketchikan.

The Cape Fox bill has generated some heavy opposition from Juneau residents and activists who oppose resource development in picturesque and wildlife-rich Berners Bay.

"(Murkowski) knows Juneau is against just giving away our backyard land for a bunch of stumps near Ketchikan," said Aurah Landau, a grassroots coordinator with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.

"We want Berners Bay to remain in public hands, period," said John Hudson of the Friends of Berners Bay environmental group.

The dilemma for Cape Fox Corp., which represents the Native village of Saxman, is that it was not allowed to claim land within six miles of Ketchikan - a measure to protect the city's watersheds. As a result, the corporation could only legally claim 160 acres of isolated, mountainous land with unknown economic value.

The entire land exchange hinges on Cape Fox's agreement to receive surface and mineral rights at the former Jualin Mine at Berners Bay, according to John Morrell, assistant director of lands for the Forest Service's Alaska regional office.

Another Murkowski-sponsored bill under review by the Energy committee, the Alaska Land Transfer Acceleration Act, is less well-known but also has attracted some controversy.

The bill would speed up the transfer of public lands claimed by Native corporations by reducing processing costs, setting acreage requirements and other measures.

It also has been tabled until September.

Native corporations have expressed dismay about the slow pace of Alaska land transfers. Also, state officials have asked that the federal land claims be settled by 2009, the 50-year anniversary of Alaska's statehood.

But environmentalists are worried that the bill will allow corporations to cherry-pick valuable lands and prevent public review of resource development.

Murkowski's spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte defended the bill, saying the corporations rightfully claimed their lands decades ago and to change the law now to require an additional public review process would be "grossly unfair."

Once the land is transferred to the Native corporations, it would no longer be subject to stringent laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, which regulates public resource development.

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