Doyon may still develop oil in Yukon Flats refuge

Posted: Tuesday, July 21, 2009

FAIRBANKS - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's rejection of a proposed land exchange at the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge did not upset the Native corporation that sought the swap.

Fairbanks-based Doyon Ltd. would have received 110,000 acres plus oil and gas rights to another 97,000 acres of refuge lands. In exchange, the refuge would have picked up at least 150,000 acres owned by Doyon within refuge boundaries. Fish and Wildlife also would have had the right to some Doyon oil and gas revenue.

The price of oil has risen since negotiations began more than five years ago, making it potentially more profitable for Doyon to develop the land it already owns, the company said. Even as the deal progressed in recent years, information from the U.S. Geological Survey showed that the land Doyon was about to trade away held promising oil and gas prospects of its own, said Jim Mery, the company's president for lands and natural resources.

"We've been having growing concerns that perhaps it wasn't in the best interest of the organization," Mery said.

The corporation plans to explore and possibly develop land within the wildlife refuge borders, beginning with land near the villages of Birch Creek and Stevens Village, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Significant oil and gas development in the Yukon Flats has the potential to create jobs and provide cheaper, reliable fuel sources in Interior Alaska.

Doyon, the regional Native corporation for the Interior, started discussing the trade in the mid-1990s and petitioned for it in 2004. Fish and Wildlife Service officials labeled the Doyon lands they would obtain as high-value habitat, but environmental groups argued that the development from oil and gas exploration would lead to roads or pipelines through the refuge.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced its preliminary decision earlier this month, received 100,000 public comments on the trade, with the vast majority opposed.

Some Yukon Flats village organizations supported the proposal, but others warned it could harm hunting and fishing.

"We still live a subsistence way of life out here, and we would like to keep it the way it is," said Mike Peter, first chief of the tribal government for Fort Yukon. "We'd like (our children) to have what we had when we grew up. Clean water, clean air, clean land."



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